There may be no symbol in American life more ubiquitous than the peace sign. Look carefully, and you will find it everywhere. No longer limited to pious bumper stickers and homemade psychedelic rally posters, the peace sign can be seen on children’s apparel, clothing, accessories, jewelry, souvenir mugs, school supplies, and toys. From Kohl’s to the airport gift shop to the hallways of the neighborhood school, what was once derisively called the “footprint of the great American chicken” is now displayed almost without controversy—and at a time, no less, when American servicemen and women are engaged in combat in three different conflicts around the world. This transformation is striking. To apprehend just how striking, consider the background of the peace sign.
Some religious groups, noting the resemblance of the symbol to an upside-down and broken cross, claim some sort of satanic origin for the peace sign. But its genesis is more easily traced to English artist Gerald Holtom, who designed the symbol in 1958 for use by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Holtom formed the symbol by developing a stylized combination of the semaphore signs for the letters N and D, standing for “Nuclear Disarmament.”
The CND was a British organization formed in 1957 to promote unilateral nuclear disarmament by Great Britain and a general disarmament convention. The group demanded that Britain halt nuclear tests and move away from dependence on nuclear weapons. In the early 1960s, and again for a time from the mid-1970s to 1983, the CND successfully pressured the Labour Party to adopt a stance of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the 1980s, the group was at the forefront of a resurgent anti-nuclear movement in Britain, which vigorously but unsuccessfully sought to block the deployment of American cruise missiles as a counter to the massive Soviet SS-20 deployment that had been ongoing since 1979. While the full extent of Soviet influence is still uncertain, it is clear that a significant number of CND leaders were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, including John Cox, who chaired the organization from 1971 to 1977. In 1999 the BBC revealed that at least one major CND figure served as a conduit of information to the East German Stasi.
* * *
Holtom’s peace symbol soon crossed the Atlantic to find a happy home in the American Left. By 1960, a University of Chicago student had begun importing peace sign buttons into the United States. It became a primary symbol of opposition to U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. The movement that took it as a standard demanded unconditional withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Southeast Asia, and among radical Leftists the peace symbol shared top billing with signs extolling the virtues of the National Liberation Front and the chairman of the North Vietnamese Politburo. During those years, the symbol was a source not of harmony but of division, and was the subject of more than a few fistfights between hippies and hardhats.
Since then, it has returned to prominence as the symbol of movements opposing U.S. intervention in Central America, U.S. retaliation against Libyan terrorism, the U.S. arms buildup in the 1980s, the U.S. and allied drive to oust Saddam Hussein’s invading army from Kuwait in the 1990s, and American military efforts against Saddam, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda in the new century. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, bumper stickers began to appear sporting the peace symbol with the slogan “back by popular demand.” In one sense, though, it had never gone away. It is hard to think of an instance of U.S. military action since the 1960s that has not been accompanied by a chorus of opposition hoisting high the old symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And in every case, the peace movement has been generally unrepresentative of popular sentiment, even during unpopular wars. Despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, for example, the candidate of the peace symbol in 1972 won only one state and the District of Columbia.
* * *
For more than half a century, the peace symbol has represented the controversial argument that the United States and the democratic West should refrain from defending itself or its friends against a uniformly vile collection of totalitarian thugs ranging from Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev to Ho Chi Minh, Iraqi Baathists andAfghan Islamists, regardless of the consequences to the actual peace and freedom of the world. Indeed, not to put too fine a point on the matter, the movements which have adopted the peace sign as their own have gone out of their way in times of great peril to aid and abet the tyrannical enemies of the United States, psychologically if not materially. Yet the peace sign now adorns little girls’ purses with barely a whisper of protest. When my wife and I complained last year that my son’s school had adopted the peace symbol as the emblem of its anti-bullying program (a task for which it seemed particularly ill-fitted, given its history of seeking to incapacitate resistance to international bullies) the principal did not bother responding.
The trajectory of the peace symbol brings to the foreground a broader issue of political memory and the fate of highly-charged political symbols. Some are so infamous and hateful that they cannot be rehabilitated. Everyone knows them, and they remain—and, one hopes and expects, will always remain—hated. The swastika is the prime example. Others are odious but obscure, and have slipped forever into the mists of time. No one can think of making the symbol of the German-American Bund respectable, for the simple reason that hardly anyone remembers that it existed. Others face a more complicated disposition. The Confederate flag, for example, was once reviled as a symbol of sedition (and loved by its sympathizers as a symbol of the “Lost Cause”); today its meaning is ambiguous. It represents racism to its foes and some sort of generic Southern heritage to its defenders. The red star or the hammer and sickle, responsible for more deaths than even the swastika, remains unpopular, but wearing them in public does not expose one to the sort of opprobrium that one would incur by wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the Waffen SS—despite their manifest moral equivalence.
* * *
The peace symbol has benefitted from three advantages over many other symbols of political ugliness. Its very name shields it against criticism. It is a peace sign, for goodness’ sake. Are you against peace? It is possible for many Americans, even the apolitical or those generally supportive of current U.S. military operations, to take the peace symbol at face value rather than in political and historical context. Followers of the peace sign can often legitimately claim a benign sincerity that is unavailable to the followers of other contentious symbols. Whatever the inhuman end results—and these can hardly be ignored—the peace movements of the last fifty years have clearly been populated by many well-meaning but misguided people. Not least, despite the fact that the symbol was originally wielded by activists who are now about to draw Social Security checks (if they aren’t already), it has built around it an aura of coolness and youth.
There are two possible explanations for the ubiquity of the peace symbol. For most people, it has been commercialized, co-opted, and drained of its political meaning. It has suffered the fate of environmentalism, Pete Seeger songs, and other one-time manifestations of radicalism that have since gone mainstream. America is now covered in peace signs, but this seems to be unrelated to popular opinion on the war; toward Afghanistan, Americans seem bored and apathetic rather than enraged and oppositional. It is peace as chic, not peace as program.
But perhaps the peace symbol is everywhere because the Left’s version of history is now firmly in control of popular culture. As a result, it does not occur to most Americans to recall how controversial the symbol’s history really is, or why. That the symbol is an affront to the American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan goes unnoticed and unmentioned.
While they can each stand alone, these two explanations could and probably do work in tandem. The fact that the fruits of the peace movements—the Boat People, Pol Pot’s genocide, the Axis Sally quality of much of the protesting over the last fifty years—have been sent down the memory hole has made the commercialization and trivialization of the peace symbol possible. Perhaps the current craze will soon abate, as the nostalgia industry moves on deeper into the 1970s—though it is hard to imagine youth sweatshirts trading the peace sign for the Whip Inflation Now logo anytime soon. In the end, the popularity of the peace sign does not bode well for the martial spirit of Americans, or their historical memory.