The Peace Symbol

Floyd and Mary Beth Brown
|
Posted: Sep 12, 2008 12:04 PM
The Peace Symbol

"What's the big deal with the peace symbol? Why don't you like it? I think they're cute," our 13-year-old daughter said while we were shopping for back-to- school clothing and school supplies.

You can't miss it. More and more, they are appearing and popping up everywhere. We saw peace symbols covering every surface imaginable; earrings, necklaces, purses and many different styles of shirts at various stores including a t-shirt of Hello Kitty sitting atop the huge retro symbol, plus more. But they are not just for girls. Guys' t-shirts, belts, backpacks, and posters for either sex abound throughout the shopping mall.

But don't think they are just on inexpensive items like bumper stickers. The resurrected peace sign is on Fendi bags, limited-edition VW cars and even high-end jewelry. Tiffany advertises a platinum peace sign pendant covered in 4.8 carats of round-cut diamonds worth $4,500.

The peace sign provokes different feelings. To us, symbol represents the 1960s counterculture of the hippies and anti-war protesters. To others, it has just the opposite effect. To them it symbolizes a utopian world of peace and unity.

Many trace the symbol's origin to a 1958 nuclear weapons protest march when British artist Gerald Holtom created a design for the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Holtom, a former WWII conscientious objector from London persuaded the group of which he was a member, the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), that a visual image would help in conveying their message to "Ban the Bomb."

After considering a few different designs, Holtom settled on using the semaphore-the flag-signaling alphabet. The letter N, representing nuclear, has the signaler's arms pointing down at angle, super-imposed on the letter D for disarmament. The semaphore letters are surrounded by a circle to symbolize Earth.

It wasn't long before the design traveled to America where other movements ranging from the anti-Vietnam protests, the counter-culture of the '60s and '70s and the environmentalists used it.

American pacifist Ken Kolsbun wrote the book, "Peace: The Biography of a Symbol." He says, "The symbol really got going over here during the 1960s and '70s, when it became associated with anti-Vietnam protests." The anti-war protests and presence of the symbol grew in correlation to the fighting in Vietnam, Kolsbun said. "This, of course, led some people to condemn it as a communist sign."

However, if Holtom did some research, he would have found that in the symbol had already been used-by the Nazi Germany 3rd Panzer Division, wearing them on their uniform from 1941 to 1945.

While some say it's 50 years old, others maintain it goes back to the time of Nero persecuting the early Christians, thereby calling it a Nero cross or Broken cross because Saint Peter was purportedly hung on a cross up-side down by Nero. Others point out that it resembles the ancient Nordic and Germanic pagan rune symbol for death. And then there are those folks who argue it can be found on some Nazi SS officer's graves.

"I remember coming home one day with a shirt with a huge peace symbol on it because I thought it looked cool," said one middle-aged Christian woman named Melanie. "My mom flipped and I couldn't understand why. I had never heard of it representing anything negative. Upon learning of its origins, I couldn't with a good conscience wear it knowing it had represented hate toward my faith."

Everywhere you look now you will see the sign. The design is especially prevalent anywhere items for teenagers and young adults are sold.

To most young people, they think they are cute, in vogue and popular. But anyone of an older generation often associates the peace symbol with anti-war protesters. It brings back memories from our own youth of hippies with their promotion of the counterculture with its anti-Western and anti-Christian views, stoned, loitering and smelling of illegal drugs. In the 1960s, years before this generation of youth was ever born, hippies were sticking flowers in National Guard rifles and tripping-out at Woodstock. Images of anti-war protesters scorning and spitting on Vietnam veterans brings back negative visceral feelings about the peace symbol for us.

To celebrate the Big 5-0 for the peace sign, chic New York department store Barney's is throwing a Peace and Love holiday extravaganza this fall called "Have a Hippie Holiday." Barney's asked top designers top to create dresses inspired by the peace symbol. In addition, the store is featuring items it commissioned such as tie-dye Converse hi-top shoes and a pricey peace-sign key ring. Barney's British creative director, Simon Doonan, says "It's a symbol of the mainstreaming of counter-culture ideas, of things that were part of the alternative lifestyle -- like environmentalism -- it's that ultimately what the hippies would have wanted?"