Sign of the times

IssueSeptember - November 2002
Feature by Andrew Rigby

The most common representation of peace emblems in Britain occurs on people's clothing and attire in the form of badges, ear-rings and the like, or in the guise of “bumper stickers” and other emblems attached to cars and bicycles - personal possessions emblazoned with such symbols as rainbows, doves, olive leaves, broken rifles and “smiling suns”.

These are mobile peace symbols, worn for display and as items of fashion, but they can also signify something about the general commitments and orientations of the wearers and bearers. Displaying a badge is a low risk/low cost type of individual direct action whereby one can signify one's affiliations in public space through the “private” use of commonly recognised peace symbols. In the process one can contribute, in however miniscule a fashion, to the promotion of a wider culture of peace.

There is one icon of peace whose creation and origins can be traced with complete confidence - this is the emblem that people of my age and movement background in Britain refer to as the “disarmament symbol” or the “CND symbol” (after the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). For people outside the nuclear disarmament movement in Britain, it is more commonly referred to as “the peace symbol”, and is generally perceived as emblematic of all kinds of cultural dissent. Perhaps one clue to the popularity of this symbol is its simplicity - a verticalline bisecting a circle and supported by an inverted “v”.

The broken rifle

Roberta Bacic

The symbol we use, two arms breaking a rifle, was probably used for the first time by the Dutch antimilitarist newspaper Down with Weapons around 1909.


In 1919 Ernst Friedrich, founder of the Berlin Anti-War Museum, met Bart de Ligt - leader of the Dutch Pacifist movement at the time, and was so fascinated by the symbol - which meant anarchy and liberty to him - that he resolved to develop a metal badge fo it, he also made flags with the broken rifle and the rising sun. WRI has used the symbol since 1932.

Story of the sign

In 1957 a small group of activists around Peace News had formed what became known as the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, which was the forerunner of the more widely known Committee of One Hundred. From pre-dominantly anarcho-pacifist backgrounds, the founder members were strongly influenced by the nonviolent methods of resistance (satyagraha) developed by Gandhi during the Indian freedom struggle, and they devised their actions in accordance with their understanding of his principles of truth and nonviolence. One of their earliest projects was a three-day march from London to the nuclear weapons research establishment at Aldermaston which was to take place over the Easter period of 1958. For them the significance of this action was that it would be targeted quite specifically at the workers responsible for developing weapons of mass destruction, urging them to heed their conscience and cease their work. Gerald Holtom, an artist who lived in the west London suburb of Twickenham was involved in preparations for that first march. His responsibility was to design and make all the visual effects, the placards and banners, that would be displayed on the march. He was convinced that it should have a symbol associated with it that would leave in the public mind a visual image signifying nuclear disarmament, and which would also convey the theme that it was the responsibility of each and every individual to work to remove the threat of nuclear war.

A puny thing?

But how to convey this message? In a letter to Hugh Brock (editor of Peace News in 1958 and a key figure within the Direct Action Committee) written in 1973, Gerald Holtom recalled how he came to create the symbol that has since become universally recognised as a sign of peace and protest. At first he toyed with the idea of using the Christian cross as the dominant motif, but realised that “in Eastern eyes the Christian Cross was synonymous with crusading tyranny culminating in Belsen and Hiroshima and the manufacture and testing of the H-bomb”. He rejected the image of the dove, as it had been appropriated by “the Stalinregime ... to bless and legitimise their H-bomb manufacture”. In his own words, “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya's peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it. It was ridiculous at first and such a puny thing ...” The symbol also represented a composite of the semaphore signals for the letters N and D - nuclear disarmament.

Unilateral action

Gerald took his sketches round to the offices of Peace News where members of the organising group were working. The group enthusiastically adopted the symbol, agreed to put it on their leaflets, and encouraged Gerald to start producing the banners and lollipop placards for use on their marches. Amongst their number was Michael Randle who recalls a veteran peace campaigner coming up to him shortly after the first leaflet bearing the motif had been printed to complain that he and the others must have been out of their minds for adopting it - it would never catch on!

The next day Gerald made a badge out of white paper with the design penned in black ink. He pinned it to his coat lapel and forgot about it. Later that day he went to the local post-office and the young woman behind the counter asked about the badge he was wearing. Gerald informed her it was the new badge for nuclear disarmament, and returned home “filled with embarrassment and doubts”.

He was not happy with his design. Everybody believed nuclear disarmament was desirable. It was not enough just to call for nuclear disarmament. The symbol did not convey the need for individuals to take responsibility for the direct creative action that was necessary to combat the nuclear threat. The key to nuclear disarmament was unilateral action.

A few days later, whilst he was busy preparing banners and “lollipop placards” for the march, he experienced a “revolution of thought”. He had been turning the symbol round in his hand “in the struggle to find a way beyond despair”. Then he realised: if the symbol was inverted, then it could be seen as representing the tree of life, the tree on which Christ had been crucified and which, for Christians like Gerald Holtom, was a symbol of hope and resurrection. Furthermore, that inverted image of a figure with arms stretched upwards and outwards also represented the semaphore signal for U - Unilateral.

A symbol is born!

Thus was the symbol born. A few months after its first appearance on that march to Aldermaston of Easter 1958, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament asked if they could adopt it.

Carl Jung wrote of cultural symbols as representing “eternal truths” with archaic roots, but which could still retain something of their original power or “spell” in the modern world. The manner in which the nuclear disarmament sign came into being and acquired universal significance as a symbol of peace and protest would seem to support this thesis. In the forty years since it was created, Gerald Holtom's design has proven itself remarkable as a symbol that exercises a particular appeal to those who, like its designer, believe in the significance of “unilateral” action in the pursuit of peace and justice. Thus, whilst many of us lack the courage and the single-mindedness of past and present generations of direct activists, prepared to risk imprisonment in their struggle to rid the world of weapons and structures of violence, we can still do our little bit. We can wear the badge, display the emblem, signify our affiliations. By visually proclaiming our values as we pursue the routines of daily life in the public domain, we can reassure ourselves that we are contributing, in however small a fashion, to the strengthening of a culture of peace.

Topics: Culture