Design in the Cold War: The Peace Symbol

(This is now definitely a series on Cold War design. Here’s Parts One, Two, and Three)

The most familiar of the designs inspired by the early Cold War is the classic spoke-and-wheel peace symbol.

Peace symbol

The symbol’s long history starts in 1958 with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and its plans for a march on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment Aldermaston. An artist, Gerald Holtom, came up with a symbol to paint onto the marchers’ signs. Holtom was inspired by two things. The first was the peasant being executed in Goya’s Third of May, 1808 (though Goya’s peasant had his arms angled upwards, and Holtom’s symbol angled downwards). The other was the semaphore signals for N and D, symbolizing Nuclear Disarmament. The symbol appeared on 500 or so signs at the march, and in a line of clay buttons afterwards. The CND adopted it as their official logo.

The simplicity of Holtom’s symbol made it easy to embrace, as well as spawning alternate interpretations of its significance. One London CND member identified it as a combination of two Norse runes: the bent cross, inverted, representing sanctuary and the ring representing an unborn child. CND general secretary Peggy Duff built on that that to claim that it symbolized the threat of mutation that nuclear weapons posed.

It only a took a few years for Holtom’s peace symbol to pass well beyond the limited topic of nuclear disarmament and to become a general symbol of non-violent resistance, opposition to war, or commitment to social justice. The cover of Shelly Buchanan’s study of US soldiers’ lighters, Vietnam Zippos, features a lighter engraved with the symbol. So does the album art for Prince’s 1987 Sign O’ The Times. Today, the peace symbol is still the official logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But the last fifty years have taken Holtom’s simple logo and made it into the symbol of an era and an attitude more than of a particular political opinion.

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One thought on “Design in the Cold War: The Peace Symbol

  1. Pingback: CND peace sign, how it was born | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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