Peace on Earth

The surprising, serendipitous history of the peace symbol

The peace symbol was partly inspired by Goya’s depiction of the massacre of Spanish peasants during the Napoleonic Wars.

The peace symbol was partly inspired by Goya’s depiction of the massacre of Spanish peasants during the Napoleonic Wars.

Courtesy Of Museo del Prado

“Peace on Earth” is a nice sentiment for a holiday greeting card, but as we scan the globe and see that war and suffering are just as prevalent as ever, it can seem hopelessly naive, too. Peace was not always a cause—actually, the idea was treasonous only a few centuries ago; it only became a “movement” over the past 100 years. One turning point was the creation of that little symbol you see on all those bumpers and T-shirts. Every movement needs a banner—something universal—to unite the like-minded people of the world. Like other potent symbols, the peace symbol is not something you just wear, either. You live it.

The symbol has a story, and it pulls on several threads of the same painful tapestry of war. It’s a symbol that was born in England in 1653, when a religious leader was faced with being put to death for preaching peace. It was also born in Spain, on May 3, 1808, when thousands of innocents were murdered by Napoleon’s troops. And it was even born in 1958, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as a retired military man steered his little sloop into the face of oblivion.

But the story starts in 1648, when an odd young man named George Fox could be found preaching around London, but not in churches. He chose to preach in markets, or out in open fields. Fox was pretty clear that Christians should do their best to live without sin. But that was a tough message for the era; Europe’s devastating Thirty Years War was ending, and England’s own civil wars were underway. Of course, Fox’s preachings caught the attention of the authorities, nervous that any new sect could spawn even more revolution than was already in the air.

Fox was imprisoned repeatedly; one judge got a laugh by saying Fox would “tremble at the word of the lord.” Thus the name “Quakers” was coined for the religious movement properly known as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers fleeing persecution in England settled Pennsylvania).

By 1653, Fox was viewed as a real threat. The civil wars had ended, and Oliver Cromwell was keeping the peace. He had Fox arrested and brought to London. Speculation was rampant that Fox soon would be found swinging from a hangman’s noose.

The two men met and, to everyone’s surprise, Fox was set free. Apparently, as they say in today’s peace movement, Fox “spoke truth to power.” In his recollection of the meeting, Fox wrote than Cromwell was taken by his brand of Christian worship and, “with tears in his eyes said, ‘Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day together, we should be nearer one to the other’; adding that he wished me no more ill than he did to his own soul.”

Quakers continued to be persecuted, however, and Fox passed away. But he left intact a religious tradition that would live on and become, in surprising ways, the foundation of the modern peace movement.

As we all know, war persisted. Although the Thirty Years War was the last religious war fought on European soil, the nation states that rose up in its aftermath quickly found plenty of reasons to kill each other.

It was just 150 years later that Europe would be torn asunder again, via the Napoleonic Wars. One of the campaigns in those wars was the Peninsular War (1808-1814), fought in Spain and Portugal. This marked another deadly twist, as it was named a guerilla war at the time—and is still considered the first such war by historians. But as Fox reacted to war in his own lifetime, another man watched the Peninsular War and planted more seeds so that peace might someday bloom among the ruins of his homeland.

The painter Francisco Goya fills a unique niche in art history: He’s considered perhaps the last of the old masters and also among the very first of the modernists. While beauty was aesthetic enough for the old masters, Goya added truth to his work.

In the final years of the Peninsular War, Goya turned his eye to the horrors of war. In a series of prints called “The Disasters of War,” he documented the atrocities being visited on his country with a photographer’s honesty. Although not published until 1863, Goya’s conscience and skill allowed him to become the first modern anti-war artist.

But it was his depiction of the first days of the war that has lived on even longer. On display at the Museo del Prado, “The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid” was shocking in the 19th century. Painted six years after the events it depicts, it recreates the scene when some 5,000 Madrid citizens were murdered to break the city’s spirit. Of course they fought on, as guerillas, and of course many thousands died.

Despite the atrocities of the Napoleonic Wars, humanity didn’t seem to learn much. After the 20th century dawned, the world soon was launched into another major war: World War I. Then a failed peace led to an even wider conflict: World War II.

Serving in that conflict was one U.S. Navy Commander Albert Bigelow. While steaming back into Pearl Harbor on August 6, 1945, he heard the news of a devastating new weapon that was dropped on Japan.

The symbol once was considered treasonous and the “footprint of the great American chicken.”

All these centuries of war and suffering were punctuated by these apocalyptic moments. Humanity had so perfected the art of war that it could now kill a city in a single moment. Wasn’t this finally proof that war had to end?

Deeply troubled by the deployment of so deadly a weapon, Bigelow searched for ways to protest the march to madness. Ultimately he found comfort with a religious group: none other than Fox’s Society of Friends.

Through those connections, Bigelow and his wife, Sylvia, put up two women from Hiroshima who were in the United States to get plastic surgery. They were badly disfigured from the atomic-bomb blast.

Bigelow’s faith and experience in war dictated action. He and 12 others were arrested in 1957 when they were caught trying to break into a nuclear test in Nevada. In 1958, Bigelow and four others sailed his 30-foot boat, The Golden Rule, from California to Hawaii, with an ultimate destination of the Marshall Islands, where the United States would test another nuclear bomb.

Bigelow was arrested and jailed in Hawaii, but not before his mission gained widespread notoriety in the world’s press. Another Quaker, Dorothy Stowe of Vancouver, B.C., was so impressed by Bigelow (and his book Voyage of the Golden Rule) that she borrowed his tactics for a little group she formed in 1971 called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee. Now, we call that outfit Greenpeace.

And as Bigelow sailed out to oblivion, the people of the world saw for the first time an odd symbol waving on a banner above The Golden Rule. The freshly designed nuclear-disarmament symbol made its debut. Now, we just call it the peace symbol.

Around the time Bigelow was out hunting Japanese subs near the Solomon Islands, an Englishman of fighting age was spending the war years working on a farm in Norfolk, Va. Gerald Holtom, you see, was a conscientious objector.

Nations at war don’t like citizens who won’t fight, but it’s been an issue all the way back to the American Revolution when—you guessed it—many of Fox’s Quakers refused to fight. In World War I, some 2,000 Americans who refused to participate in the war at all were locked up. Others with religious or moral misgivings have been allowed to serve off the front lines in the war effort, often as medics. In World War II, some 12,000 draftees who refused to participate in the war were put to work for the United States. In England, there were 60,000 conscientious objectors during World War II, and they, like Holtom, were put to work at home.

After the war, like many people, Holtom was horrified by the atom bomb, and he joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. An artist by trade, Holtom created a symbol for the CND to use for an upcoming protest. Basically, the design is intended to mimic the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D” (“N”uclear “D”isarmament), but when Holtom thought about it, the simple little symbol had deeper meanings, too—meanings that stretched across the span of years, connecting with other voices for peace.

As he wrote to Peace News, Holtom said: “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”

Holtom finished the symbol on February 21, 1958, and immediately donated it to the public domain.

Bigelow wasn’t the only one to latch onto the symbol. The United States’ student peace movement was afoot on college campuses at the same time. University of Chicago student and peace activist Philip Altbach visited London in 1960, and brought back to campus with him a bag of buttons with the logo on them. Who cares if they were designed for nuclear disarmament? It would do as a banner to fight against the Vietnam War, too. Or it even could be used to articulate solidarity over the civil-rights movement, as Bayard Rustin, an early adopter of the peace symbol, believed.

In the 1960s, Altbach’s Student Peace Union reproduced and sold thousands of the buttons on college campuses. Today, millions of items are covered with the symbol.

Of course, peace doesn’t sit well with everyone. The symbol was banned in some parts of the United States during the ’60s, and pro-Vietnam War forces called it the “the footprint of the great American chicken.”

Nonetheless, Vietnam War hawks ultimately lost to the forces of peace. The movement had gained power, and “Peace on Earth” was making the jump from greeting cards to reality. Still, although history may offer us the wisdom to see the futility of war, even now in 2006, as Iraq proves, we don’t always want to open our eyes.

In fact, that’s the latest mission of the American Friends Service Committee, the group Bigelow belonged to and another of Fox’s descendents—and it follows in the anti-war art tradition set by Goya all those years ago. Their “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit has made more than 70 stops in American cities since 2004. They display a pair of empty boots for every American killed in Iraq. Sadly, the display keeps getting bigger.

If we open our eyes, we can know what Fox felt revealed to him by God, or what Goya learned when he saw his countrymen ground to carnage, or what Bigelow felt compelled to do after he saw the disfigured face of the atomic era. It’s a lot of human experience to boil down to a single icon, but Holtom did it pretty well.