The Peace Symbol: Beginnings and Evolution

Born in Britain in the Cold War, Now a Worldwide Symbol

Peace sign made with many flowers on grass
Marie France Hickman/ Stockbyte/ Getty Images

There are many symbols of peace: the olive branch, the dove, a broken rifle, a white poppy or rose, the "V" sign. But the peace symbol is one of the most recognized symbols around the world and the one most used during marches and in protests.

Birth of the Peace Symbol

Its history begins in Britain, where it was designed by graphic artist Gerald Holtom in February 1958 to be used as a symbol against nuclear arms. The peace symbol debuted on April 4, 1958, Easter weekend that year, at a rally of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, which included a march from London to Aldermaston. The marchers carried 500 of Holtom's peace symbols on sticks, with half of the signs black on a white background and the other half white on a green background. In Britain, the symbol became the emblem for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, thus causing the design to become synonymous with that Cold War cause. Interestingly, Holtom was a conscientious objector during World War II and thus a likely supporter of its message. 

The Design

Holtom drew a very simple design, a circle with three lines inside. The lines inside the circle represent the simplified positions of two semaphore letters — the system of using flags to send information great distances, such as from ship to ship). The letters "N" and "D" were used to represent "nuclear disarmament." The "N" is formed by a person holding a flag in each hand and then pointing them toward the ground at a 45-degree angle. The "D" is formed by holding one flag straight down and one straight up.

Crossing the Atlantic

An ally of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, was a participant in the London-to-Aldermaston march in 1958. Apparently impressed with the power of the peace symbol in political demonstrations, he brought the peace symbol to the United States, and it was first used in civil rights marches and demonstrations of the early 1960s.

By the late '60s, it was showing up in demonstrations and marches against the burgeoning war in Vietnam. It began to be ubiquitous, making an appearance on T-shirts, coffee mugs and the like, during this period of antiwar protest. The symbol became so linked with the antiwar movement that it has now become an iconic symbol for the entire era, an analog of the late 1960s and early '70s.

A Symbol That Speaks All Languages

The peace symbol has gained international stature — speaking all languages — and has been found around the world wherever freedom and peace are threatened: on the Berlin Wall, in Sarajevo, and in Prague in 1968, when Soviet tanks made a show of force in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Free to All

The peace symbol was intentionally never copyrighted, so anyone in the world can use it for any purpose, in any medium, for free. Its message is timeless and available to all who want to use it to make their point for peace.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Peace Symbol: Beginnings and Evolution." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). The Peace Symbol: Beginnings and Evolution. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Peace Symbol: Beginnings and Evolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).