In “Peace: The Biography of a Symbol,” author and lifelong peace activist Ken Kolsbun tells the history of the peace symbol in vivid pictures and words. Kolsbun’s book was published on April 4, 2008 by National Geographic on the 50th anniversary of the symbol’s public introduction. The 82-year-old and still ardent peace activist is currently working on a 60th anniversary edition for publication in 2018, tentatively titled “The Iconic Peace Symbol in America – Past, Present and Future.”
Where it All Started and Where it’s Heading
The first public display of the peace symbol happened during the Cold War on the Easter weekend of April 4, 1958 in a “Ban the Bomb” protest gathering of 5,000 Londoners. That protest included a 4-day, 52-mile-long march from London to the village of Aldermaston, home of the United Kingdom’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. More than 500 peace activists took part in the march. A large sign at the head of the march featured the new peace symbol, which was created by British designer Gerald Holton. It quickly garnered worldwide recognition, but it has slipped into a commercial oblivion since its halcyon days during the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement of the 60s.
While images of the peace symbol are still visible here and there on the abundantly creative signs of the new multifaceted anti White House Administration protests, now frequently referred to as the “RESIST” movement, the symbol is no longer as ubiquitous as perhaps it should be today.
It does, however, have a new life in the making. Kolsbun suggests that placing the original peace symbol alongside an inverted version – in effect, two peace symbols – can be used together as a unifying image in concert with today’s protest movement.
His reasoning for this comes from a story about Holton, who was a lifelong passionate peace activist. Holton’s design was based on a human stick figure with arms flowing downward in despair inside a circle that represented the planet. He soon discovered the symbol’s straight line down the center represented a semaphore (alphabetic code) D, and the downward angles represented a semaphore N. The ND coincidentally stood for Nuclear Disarmament, a seemingly perfect symbol for the Ban the Bomb protest in April 1958.
Significance of Inverted Peace Symbol: Unilateral Disarmament
Later in life Holton regretted using the arms flowing downward and favored changing the peace symbol to an inverted version with the angled arms flowing upward as a more positive message of hope and not despair. This coincidentally stood for a semaphore U, and thus changed the symbol to represent UD, meaning Unilateral Disarmament.
Holton died in 1985. Kolsbun quoted the following from Holton’s will: “I wish to be buried in Hythe at Seabrook and my gravestone be carved with an inverted campaign for nuclear disarmament symbol.” For reasons not known, however, the two peace symbols engraved on Holton’s tombstone were not inverted.
Nonetheless, the UD message can be construed as an important addendum to the current resistance-oriented theme that continues to gain steam and grow into a dynamic, multifaceted anti White House administration engine. “Why not encourage people to use both the traditional (ND) and inverted UD?” Holton said in one of several telephone and email conversations I had with him. “I would encourage people to become acquainted with each and display them side by side.”
The logic behind adding a strong UD message is in tune with intense opposition currently espoused by many knowledgeable nuclear arms experts, including the 89-year-old former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, who for more than a decade, and most currently through his UD-focused project, has repeatedly said “the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
The Fallacy of Parity
The underlying basis for Perry’s statement, as noted in a free, self-paced Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) launched this past October offered by Stanford Online Lagunita, titled “Living at the Nuclear Brink,” is this: The U.S. and Russia have the largest nuclear stockpiles by far than any other countries in the world with more than 5,000 nuclear weapons each (covered by treaties), and these totals do not include thousands of additional nuclear capable weapons that Russia and the U.S. have not covered by any nuclear arms treaty. China, on the other hand, has about 250 nuclear weapons. As per research from the Global Zero Commission, all we really need is 450 weapons of all kinds, and we would “still have plenty for deterrence. Anybody would be foolish to attack us if we had the ability to respond with 400 weapons,” Perry said in one segment of the MOOC. The inaccurate perception that we must be equal to Russia in the number of nuclear weapons we have is referred to as “the fallacy of parity.”
Two additional sources of intelligent and substantial information concerning UD, in general, are the Ploughsares Fund and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Both offer numerous cogent arguments in favor of UD.
Bring it Back
Add to this a growing call for military build-up that will not, in short, make anyone on the planet any safer, and it becomes easy to feel a new sense of doom possibly on the near horizon.
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy recently wrote, for instance, that while our focus leans on Russian ties, the repeal and replace debacle, and the next blunder in the making, the current White House administration has been busy increasing the number of American soldiers deployed to Syria, “and virtually no one in Washington has noticed.” Murphy added that, yes, he wants to defeat ISIS, but in the process he does not want “Americans to die and billions of dollars to be wasted in a war that makes the same mistakes as the disastrous American invasion of Iraq.”
Peace activist and scholar David Cortright, who is author of a thorough catalogue of peace activism milestones since the 19th century, titled “Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas,” expressed to me in several communications that he believes, under our current circumstances, “the peace symbol remains relevant, and could become more so if the Trump administration moves ahead, as it seems they might, to boost military spending while cutting domestic programs, and to send more ground troops into Syria and Iraq in the name of destroying ISIS.”
Cortright is also Director of Peace Accords Matrix and Director of Policy Studies for Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. “After more than 15 years of a failed war on terror,” he says, “it really might be time to give peace a chance.”