The hostilities in the Persian Gulf in January and February energized a vocal, if small, anti-war movement. And as it mobilized, the familiar peace symbol of the 1960s reappeared, along with several legends about its origin.
The truth about the origin of the peace symbol is explained in many books of trivia and odd information.Scot Morris gives this concise explanation in his "Book of Strange Facts & Useless Information" (1979):
"The lines in the familiar peace symbol stand for the initials of `nuclear disarmament,' in the flagman's semaphore code. Flags held in an upside-down V represent the letter N, and flags held vertically, one above the signaler's head and the other at his feet, represent the letter D. The symbol was designed in Britain for the first Ban-the-Bomb march in 1958."
Columnist Cecil Adams gives further background on the symbol in his 1988 book "More of the Straight Dope." He identifies the designer as British commercial artist Gerald Holtom and provides the date of his invention, Feb. 21, 1958.
Holtom was commissioned by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to create a logo for a march protesting English atomic weapons research. He came up with the idea of symbolizing "Nuclear Disarmament" with the semaphore equivalents of "N" and "D."
But there are many wild stories about where the peace sign came from. For example, a recent letter to the editor of a newspaper said:
"The so-called `peace sign,' the inverted broken cross in a circle . . . was designed by the so-called `Red Bishop' in Britain, an avowed communist.
"The original symbol was used, with the arms directed upward toward heaven, by early Christians as a symbol of charity and hope. The Satanists then turned it the other side up for their symbol."
Other stories about the origin of the peace sign have circulated for decades, though most of them are unsupported by evidence:
- The "broken cross" sign was invented by the Roman emperor Nero, who condemned St. Peter to be crucified upside down.
- The sign represents the B-52 bombers used by the United States in Southeast Asia; it's surrounded by a circle, symbolizing containment.
- The sign stands for "free love" and was favored by hippies because they were supposedly only interested in "peace" as a climate for pursuing unbridled lovemaking.
- The inverted broken cross emblem symbolizes the Antichrist and was adopted by the Nazis.
"More Rumor!" the 1987 book by Hal Morgan and Kerry Tucker, explains the source of the Satanic charges against the symbol. This idea was first advanced in an article by David Gumaer that appeared in the June 1970 issue of the John Birch Society's American Opinion magazine.
Gumaer's title was, "Peace Symbols: The Truth About Those Strange Designs," but none of his sensational assertions was proven. Morgan and Tucker describe the article as relying "heavily on misinformation."
Gumaer claimed that Bertrand Russell, founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, designed the symbol. Presumably, Russell's left-of-center views rendered him a communist dupe.
According to the article, the sign represented both a "chicken track" and a "swept-wing bomber in vertical flight"; Gumaer saw sinister meanings in each interpretation.
The letter quoted above shows that elements of Gumaer's article, although two decades old and full of falsities, still circulate in the form of a legend with variations.
Morgan and Tucker concluded that Gumaer's claims have "little to do with the creation of the peace symbol, which was designed by a young artist . . . for a group seeking an end to nuclear weaponry."
Cecil Adams commented on the sort of mentality that insists that the peace sign has sinister overtones: "The Birchers, you may remember, also distributed bumper stickers featuring the peace symbol with the slogan, `Footprint of the American Chicken.' Birchers are noted for their spry sense of humor."
That last statement was, of course, ironic - but I expect some who read it will miss the point and write me in order to "prove" that the peace sign had Satanic origins.
After all, as most urban legends demonstrate, the truth never stands in the way of a good story.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.