Throughout history, numerous visual images have symbolized peace. These include images of doves, olive branches, broken rifles and the sign language V used first by hippies to represent both peace and love. One peace sign that is recognizable to many is the peace sign designed by Gerald Holtom. It is the familiar round circle with a line down the middle and two slanted lines, about half the length of the vertical line. The slanted lines attach to the vertical line, slightly below its direct middle, and continue to the perimeter of the circle.
This particular peace sign may also be called the peace symbol, and it may be referred to as the CND. Initially, Holtom designed the sign in 1958 for the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC). British advocates for nuclear disarmament formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and used Holtom’s sign as a badge. While the sign initially stood for nuclear disarmament, it quickly became a symbol for peace, adopted in the 1960s by the strong anti-war and counterculture movement occurring in both England and the US. Buttons with the peace sign first made their way to the US in 1960.
If you’re familiar with semaphore, the use of flag movement and hand positions to signal letters that can be understood from a distance, the peace sign makes sense. It incorporates the semaphore positions for the letters N and D and stands specifically for nuclear disarmament. Additionally, Holtom suggested the interior lines were that of a person, standing with arms down in a despairing pose. The person Holtom drew was representative of his own position on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and also references the 1808 painting by Francisco Goya, The Third of May.
In Goya’s painting, a peasant kneels before a firing squad. However, his arms are slanted upward instead of down. The peasant is clearly not resigned to his imminent death and faces the soldiers with a level gaze. The body position of the peasant suggests defiance, and not the despair Holtom’s “arm’s down” pose represents in the peace sign.
Not all appreciated Holtom’s peace sign. Some suggested it stood for the anti-Christ, and represents an upside down cross with broken arms. People who felt that anti-war groups called for peace out of cowardice have called the peace sign the footprint of the American chicken.