The Origins of the 1960s Peace Symbol

Political action and societal developments dominated the 1960s, influencing subsequent decades. Protests for peace, equality, and freedom made headlines around the time the United States entered the Vietnam War in 1965. However, many of the sentiments associated with hippies and pacifists originated in the 1950s. The emblem we associate so vividly with the 1960s was created during the same decade that I Love Lucy initially aired.

peace symbol graffiti

Some individuals believe that the modern peace sign, which has been turned into jewelry and used on many protest signs, was originally intended to symbolize a broken cross. However, it was designed in 1958 by anti-nuclear weaponry campaigner Gerald Holtom for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The lines are based on semaphore symbols, which were typically created by holding two flags at different angles.

These shapes have been used for ages, most notably by sailors communicating with other ships or distant land. “N” (the inverted v shape) and “D” (the vertical line) are the semaphore shapes. Holtom merged the two symbols and encircled them with a circle. The letters “N.D.” stand for “nuclear disarmament,” an increasing worry since World War II, when the United States launched the devastating, war-ending nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Following the war, the United States increased its nuclear tests on a wider scale. When other countries began to develop their own nuclear weapons, apprehension about this technology and who should use it (and when) grew. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis only heightened fears of mutual destruction now that numerous states might deploy nuclear weapons over vast distances.

protesters with peace flag, Florida, 1968

While the symbol was first associated with nuclear disarmament, it has subsequently become part of the counter-cultural lexicon. Instead of political activism, the years of love ins and the free love mentality of many young people in the 1960s obscured this symbol’s definitely political beginnings.The peace hand gesture, which is also linked with the pacifist movement, has little in common with the written peace symbol above.

The meaning of holding two thumbs up in a sign has been debated. When the palm faces in, it can be a harsh gesture intended to scold an opponent. When the palm is facing out, it might be seen as a “victory” symbol. Winston Churchill is claimed to have used this ambiguity during World War II, when he alternatively gave the gesture both directions, demonstrating his faith in triumph while simultaneously scolding the Germans.

v-sign peace symbol

Back in the United States during WWII, African Americans employed the v-sign with both hands to support an Allied victor, but also to advocate for domestic racial equality. The sign was then co-opted by hippies and activists in the 1960s as a call to peace, a tactic that capitalized on the multiple meanings it had carried up until that point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *