For a half century this semaphoric arrangement of lines and letters has served as a stand-in for pacifists, civil rights activists, and counter-culturalists. Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin explains the origins
and reinterpretations of this enduring symbol.
BOB GARFIELD: The peace symbol is 50 years old. I'm talking about the circle with the lines inside that look like a headless stick figure with splayed legs. You can doodle it on your notebook, iron it on your tie-dyed tee-shirt, spray paint it on a wall and everyone knows it means peace.
Columbia professor Todd Gitlin says the sign made its debut on February 21st 1958, in a British antinuclear march. But how did that assortment of lines and a circle come to mean peace? TODD GITLIN: It was a semaphore signal. It was a code that stood for the two letters joined, N and D, for nuclear disarmament. It was adopted as a symbol by a British group called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
And then it made the great migration over the water and was picked up by American pacifists and then in turn adapted by people who were almost pacifists, or not quite pacifists, in the early 1960s in a group called the Student Peace Union. And then it was just lying around as a kind of graphic gesture that was available for adaptation by anti-Vietnam War people. BOB GARFIELD: It also seemed to eventually embrace far more than nuclear disarmament itself. It was imported to the States, I believe, by Bayard Rustin in the '60s and it was embraced by the civil rights movement as kind of a universal symbol for civil disobedience and social justice. TODD GITLIN: Well, Bayard Rustin would have been the right importer because he came out of the radical pacifist movement. He was active with a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He comes into the civil rights fight as a bearer of that tradition, and they are the real Gandhians.
So there’s a direct link from people like him to Martin Luther King and people around the civil rights movement. The early Freedom Riders, many of them were drawn from that world. So it reflects that phase of the civil rights movement that was committed to active nonviolence, and in that sense the peace symbol stood for their total ideology. BOB GARFIELD: It’s interesting to me that it not only has thrived for so long and endured, but that it made an impact to begin with because, based strictly on design criteria, it doesn't seem all that fetching to me and at first glance seems to send out the wrong message.
I mean, I see a B-52 or [LAUGHS] maybe, you know, a chicken’s footprint. How did this particular symbol capture the imagination of activists worldwide? TODD GITLIN: Actually, funny you should mention the chicken’s footprint because pro-Vietnam war people in the late sixties actually liked to attach that label to it, say, ah, this is the footprint of the chicken who’s – to mix the metaphor – running away with his tail between his legs and so on, sort of “nervous Nellies,” as Lyndon Johnson used to say.
But it might be, and I'm not, I don't consult for the branding people, but [BOB LAUGHS] it might be the very simplicity and blandness of the symbol that made it so easily adaptable. There was a long period when people were putting it on jewelry and so on without any idea of its prior associations.
I mean, I remember seeing kids in the seventies wearing charms of this shape and asking them what it was, and they didn't know. BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very, very much. TODD GITLIN: My pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.
The peace sign is an emblem celebrating its 50th anniversary and joins me by phone from the State of Washington. Peace Sign, happy birthday. PEACE SIGN: Thanks. BOB GARFIELD: I must [LAUGHS] say the first time I ever noticed you, I thought you looked like a chicken footprint. PEACE SIGN: [LAUGHS] I get that a lot. Then people start with the clucking. [CLUCKS] BOB GARFIELD: Does that make you - PEACE SIGN: Antiwar chicken, coward chicken, antiwar chicken [LAUGHS] - you know, that kind of baloney. BOB GARFIELD: Now, of course, there’s another peace sign, the two fingers raised in a V. PEACE SIGN: Uh-huh yeah, the backwards Churchill. BOB GARFIELD: Exactly, the V for victory in reverse. Now, that’s also managed to span a couple of generations. Is there any rivalry between you and the fingers? PEACE SIGN: Oh, my God, no, no. We have a lot of history, and I still love him to death. You know, we haven't seen each other lately but that’s just because, you know, life sort of takes over. I'm in Seattle now to be closer to my grandkids and he’s [LAUGHS], he’s done a little hip-hop on me. You know, peace out? [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Now, another of your contemporaries – I guess you’re maybe two or three years older – but do you know the Smiley Face?
PEACE SIGN: Yeah. I know him. BOB GARFIELD: Well, did you two every hang out together or, you know, try to combine forces or whatever, like synergize in some way? PEACE SIGN: I don't talk about Smiley Face. BOB GARFIELD: Well, it just seems that, you know, you’re both fundamentally optimistic characters at a time when world events - PEACE SIGN: Next question. BOB GARFIELD: Now, it’s just that - PEACE SIGN: Next question! BOB GARFIELD: Well, Peace Sign, it’s been a fascinating half century, an amazing [LAUGHS] journey for you, with Vietnam and the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, loose nukes. Anything stand out most for you? PEACE SIGN: [SIGHS] Remember Peter, Paul and Mary? BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, of course. PEACE SIGN: Mary. [GROWLS] BOB GARFIELD: That’s gross. Peace Sign, thank you. PEACE SIGN: Whatever.