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« Pole Dancing | Main | Whatever Happened to Casein Paints? »

September 05, 2009

What Does the "Peace Symbol" Symbolize?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The last thing I want to get into is a morass of deconstructionist, over-intellectualized claptrap. But the topic of symbolism can get one dangerously close.

I'll simply state that symbols can range from images close to what they are intended to stand for all the way to abstractions that hold no intrinsic meaning. Moreover, symbols usually attain their symbolic powers through repeated use and resulting common agreement regarding their meaning.

Which brings me to the matter of the "peace symbol."

Peace%20symbol.jpg
Peace symbol

It clearly is a case where there is no intrinsic meaning whatsoever. The same might be said of white doves and olive branches, but they are real-world objects, at least.

At any rate, I've wondered for years where the thing came from and who designed it.

Finally shrugging off my habitual sloth this morning, I Googled and almost immediately found this Wikipedia entry. It seems that the designer was a British chap named Gerald Holtum (1914-85), a World War 2 conscientious objector who cobbled it together for the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War group which was planning a demonstration in 1958. As the entry shows, the odd pattern inside the circle is based on wig-wag (flag semaphore) designators for the letters "N" and "D" -- standing for nuclear disarmament. At root, the peace symbol just might have made sense to a 1920s boy scout or (gasp!) military signaler.

For a while now, I've been amusing myself after coming up with a (probably unoriginal) alternative use for the peace symbol:

Peace%20symbol%20-%20upside%20down.jpg
Surrender symbol

Given a 180, it resembles somebody with arms raised in surrender. Now that's symbolism!

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at September 5, 2009




Comments

Sorry, Donald, but as far as I remember the peace-symbold shows a simlplified broken gun. No idea who designed it when and where
Barbara

Posted by: Barbara on September 5, 2009 2:15 PM



Hah! Someone in school explained to me that it represented a rocket that couldn't fly because the circle was blocking its way. Ever since I've assumed this was one of those things that everybody knows. Thanks for the post!

Posted by: LemmusLemmus on September 5, 2009 4:02 PM



You have something there with the upside down chicken track. Make the "surrender" symbolism" a little more obvious (add face, hands) and market the sucker for t shirts and bumper stickers. Wonder if you can patent it...?

Posted by: John F Ziemba on September 5, 2009 4:15 PM



I certainly recall non-pacifists and hippie-haters in the '60s calling the original peace symbol "the footprint of the American chicken". It does look like a bird track with a circle around it.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on September 5, 2009 5:41 PM



I grew up in the 80s, you know the satanism scares and Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal musical and all that. The urban legend of the time was the peace symbol was some sort of witches hex. Also, P&Gs old logo contained the number "666". And if you play Stairway to Heaven backwords you can hear someone (or something!) mumble "sweet satan" or something to that effect . . . etc

Posted by: Bhh on September 5, 2009 5:57 PM



When I was in Catholic grade school one of my teachers didn't like the peace sign because it resemebled an unside down cross with a broken beam. The Cross of St. Peter.

Posted by: I_Affe on September 5, 2009 6:42 PM



In college we were taught that the object inside the circle was a B-52 bomber.

Posted by: Steve-O on September 5, 2009 11:07 PM



I've heard, though I don't remember where, that the peace sign was originally a stylized ND (both the letters and the semaphore signs), for "nuclear disarmament."

Posted by: Wm Jas on September 6, 2009 3:49 AM



I'd heard the broken cross theory too, but from Christian fundamentalists. They warned that it was the revival of a satanic symbol. My Catholic teachers were more likely to be seen carrying one at marches than declaiming it. At college age I'd still run into some of the nuns who were my former grade school teachers at rallies for nuclear non-proliferation. Good times!

Posted by: Bradamante on September 6, 2009 6:19 AM



Jesus, the Prince of Surrender.

Blessed are the surrenderers: for they shall be called the children of God. - New Testament-Matthew

Posted by: Chris White on September 6, 2009 6:25 AM



Ever since I've assumed this was one of those things that everybody knows. Thanks for the post!

Posted by: jar games on September 6, 2009 7:45 AM



I traveled in peacenik circles in the '60s, marching on Washington (and etc) with my parents, and the ND explanation is the one I remember.

From the font of all wisdom:

What later became an internationally recognized symbol for peace, was originally designed for the British nuclear disarmament movement.[1] It was designed and completed on 21 February 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a professional designer and artist in Britain for the 4 April march planned by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC) from Trafalgar Square, London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston Christan in England.[2][1] The symbol was later adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It was adopted by first the 1960s anti-war movement, then the counterculture, and finally the popular culture of the time.

...

he symbol itself is a combination of the semaphoric signals for the letters "N" and "D," standing for Nuclear Disarmament.[1] In semaphore the letter "N" is formed by a person holding two flags in an upside-down "V," and the letter "D" is formed by holding one flag pointed straight up and the other pointed straight down. Superimposing these two signs forms the shape of the peace symbol. In the first official CND version (which was preceded by a ceramic pin version that had straight lines, but was short lived) the spokes curved out to be wider at the edge of the circle, which was white on black.[5][6][1]

Posted by: David C on September 6, 2009 2:29 PM



The peace symbol represents violence, authoritarianism and self-loathing.

I attended one peace demo in'69. (You know, Geneva Convention etc etc. I was young - and that Robert McNamara really was a wanker.) After observing the behaviour of the demonstrators, I began to suspect I was on the wrong side. Subsequently, a large photo display of police brutality at that demo was exhibited in a special room at Sydney Uni. It showed what I'd seen: hapless police trying to do their job in the face of violent provocation. Every single photo. Yet my fellow students saw themselves as the victims in every single photo.

Shortly after, I saw a mob jostle the crippled governor of NSW when he was inspecting cadets on campus. (He had lost a leg in the process of winning a Victoria Cross.) The cadets remained at attention, because that was what Sir Roden expected of them as he continued to push down the line. Happily, the mob backed off quickly when just a few members of the engineering faculty intervened on his behalf.

I did not intervene on behalf of the cripple, but merely stood back. It was surely time to ask myself some serious questions.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 6, 2009 5:00 PM



My favourite 1960s British explanation was that it was a rather rude fertility symbol turned upside down to denote the sterility of nuclear warfare.

Posted by: dearieme on September 6, 2009 6:51 PM



The first time I ever saw the symbol, in about 1964, the wearer gave me the ND explanation. So I've always believed it was the authentic one.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 6, 2009 8:36 PM



Most simple, geometrical forms have no intrinsic meaning: the Magen David, the pentacle, the swastika or fylfot (in any of its usages), or the saltire cross.

The Cross is thre agreat exception: it literally represents the way Christ died. The Communist hammer and sickle represent industry and agriculture, presumed to be the whole of human labor, but rather less stylized. The crescent of Islam represents the moon, but I have no idea why that is supposed to be significant. Japan's flag represents the sun.

Stylized plants can represent the countries they are found in, such as the shamrock, thistle, or maple leaf.

The olive branch represents peace because, I think, olive trees require many years of undisturbed growth to develop.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 7, 2009 3:11 AM



I much prefer the Mercedes Benz symbol.

Posted by: aggieann on September 7, 2009 1:33 PM



Robert Townshend:

The peace symbol represents violence, authoritarianism and self-loathing.

Even more when you consider that various organizations in the "peace movement" were heavily infiltrated by the Soviet intelligence, and often its direct puppets. Of course, the enlightened opinion will immediately brush this off as rabid McCarthyist paranoia, but in reality, the deep involvement of KGB in the peace movement -- and their generous financial support for it -- has been confirmed by several former senior Soviet intelligence officers. Stanislav Lunev, a high-ranking Soviet spy who later defected to the U.S., claims that during the Vietnam War, the USSR spent more money on funding the anti-war movement in the West than on direct aid to North Vietnam. He described it as a "hugely successful campaign and well worth the cost."

Of course, this Soviet subversion would have been impossible if it hadn't been able to galvanize already existing domestic ideological forces, and it's pretty clear that even those in the peace movement who were aware of the Soviet involvement saw themselves as taking advantage of the Soviets to further a noble cause, not as their useful idiots. Still, when I see obnoxious graying former hippies reflecting on those days with nostalgia, it makes me puke. I only wish they had to feel for a moment the Soviet jackboot stomping on their face, which millions around the world had to endure thanks in part to their activism.

Posted by: Vladimir on September 7, 2009 2:07 PM



It's the broken cross or Cross of Nero, an anti-Christian symbol inside a circle, which symbolizes the sun. The Romans at the time of Nero were sun-worshippers, engaging in the Mithraic cult.

So its a symbol of the occult religion of sun-worship or Mithraism triumphing over Christianity. Very old.

Posted by: B on September 7, 2009 3:27 PM



I'm with Steve-o. I was taught long ago that the lines inside the circle represented a bomber with nuclear weapons aboard.

Posted by: Marik on September 7, 2009 5:17 PM



Lots of organizations in the peace movement were also infiltrated by the FBI and the CIA. It's hard to tell which group did what and which was more effective.

I do recall my disgust in 1956 when that great defender of democracy, the United States, refused to help the people of Hungary. No demonstrators caused that act of national cowardice.

I don't remember many American activists demonstrating in favor of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 either.

Posted by: marik on September 7, 2009 5:26 PM



Some years ago, I was "e-quainted" with a fellow who did research on hate groups. He referred to a website of hate-group symbology (it was still there a few months ago) that included the peace sign. I asked him if they really thought the hippy-dippy bird foot belonged there with the SS runes and such, and before long it had been taken down.

I'm not much of a lefty myself, but I didn't see it as belonging in that company.

And I once narrowly avoided an argument with a WWII vet about "The one and only true meaning" of the swastika/fylfot/sunwheel. I had pointed out that the design was used all over the world by many different cultures long before the Nazis gave it a bad name. He flushed and started to say something about wanting to see me say that to some Holocuast survivors, but I cleverly looked at my watch and wow, look at the time!

Posted by: Narr on September 8, 2009 5:35 PM



My, this blog does lean to the right, eh? ;)

Robert: are engineering faculty usually conservative? I worked with an electrical engineer for a while and he was moderately right-wing despite being Jewish...

Posted by: SFG on September 13, 2009 8:59 AM



SFG, engineering faculty tend to be much more conservative than liberal arts faculty (with hard sciences falling somewhere in between). I believe registered Democrats are actually a minority amongst US engineering faculty, for example.

Posted by: Boris on September 23, 2009 9:32 AM






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