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June 12, 2024 11 mins

The peace sign is one of the most globally recognized symbols around today, but it’s only a few decades old. And it wasn’t the hippies who created it, it was a group of Brits dedicated to nuclear disarmament in the 50s.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Hey, and welcome to the short Stuff. I'm Josh, there's Chuck.
Jerry's here too, Dave's hear and spirit. This means it's
short stuff.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Yeah, we're talking about the peace sign today. This was
put together by a guy named Josh Clark.

Speaker 1 (00:19):
No, this is from Jesselyn Shields at how Stuff Works.

Speaker 2 (00:23):
That's right. I was just kidding around. Oh okay, or
actually I was serious. But as I was saying it,
I noticed I was wrong.

Speaker 1 (00:29):
Wow, this is try to play already, stop laughing.

Speaker 2 (00:33):
But we're talking. That's right. We're talking about the peace sign,
the very familiar circle with the one vertical line straight
down the center and then the two lines branching off
at forty five degree angles.

Speaker 1 (00:49):
The peace sign. Everybody, come on, you never know. I mean,
it's everywhere, It's been everywhere. And weirdly, Chuck, it's not
that old, actually, which I guess isn't that we I
think it's actually weird that it's older than I thought
it was. How about that? Okay, all right, let's get
into it.

Speaker 2 (01:07):
Let's get into it. Because it didn't start out when
the gentleman who created it, one Gerald Holtom. He didn't say, hey,
this is a peace sign everybody. He was a British artist,
he wouldn't have said it like that anyway, he would
have had an accent. And he was an activist, and
he was a conscientious objector of World War two. And

(01:29):
it was a time in the nineteen fifties when he
was doodling around when people were worried. This is post
World War two, and the US dropped two atomic bombs
on Japan, and the you know, sort of peace micks
of the world where like, hey, this cannot stand man,
we don't want anyone to do this ever again. And

(01:50):
so some groups started forming to try and counter that.

Speaker 1 (01:53):
Yeah, specifically, there was a group called the Direct Action
Committee against Nuclear War, a group of pacifists. At the time,
this is the late fifties, this is pre hippie, but
these people definitely prefigured the Hippies who were soon to come.
But they were legitimately worried about a world where not
just one but two and then now three at the

(02:13):
time nations had nuclear weapons that they were stockpiling, and
they ended up co founding with some other groups, the
Campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament that just basically said let's just
get rid of these things. It was. You thought it
was a good idea, you tried it, it turned out
to be a horrific idea. Let's stop doubling and tripling
and quadrupling down on this and let's just get rid

(02:35):
of them altogether.

Speaker 2 (02:36):
That's right. That's a group that's still around today, which
is pretty great. And one of the first big things
they did was organized in march in London from Trafalgar
Square about fifty two miles or in this case eighty
three clicks away to Aldermiston where they had a facility
that was producing nuclear material, and Holtam said, you know what, everybody,

(03:01):
we need a logo.

Speaker 1 (03:04):
They did. I guess he probably sounded a little bit
like that, like the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Speaker 2 (03:11):
Okay, that's very kind of you.

Speaker 1 (03:13):
So he came up with this this peace sign for
the event for that march, and I've seen two different
competing explanations of that design, and I don't know if
it was just coincidence or what. But he said later
on in a letter to somebody the artists himself, David

(03:35):
or Gerald Holton, said that it was meant to be
a kind of stylized minimalist version of a person in despair,
standing there with their arms out to their sides downward,
in their palms facing out, and he says, like in
the manner of a Spanish peasant being executed by a
firing squad, and a Goya painting is a very famous

(03:57):
Goya painting of a peasant being executed by a French
firing squad. But he has his hands up in the air,
he doesn't have them downward. So I don't know what
Gerald Holton was talking about. The one that makes way
more sense since he was creating this for the Campaign
for Nuclear Disarmament. It was actually also called the CND
logo that it was Actually it's it's a semaphore. It's

(04:18):
a combination of semaphores. That' SAM for N and D.

Speaker 2 (04:22):
That's right, And a semaphore is a is basically an
alphabet that you use flags. And this is before you
could communicate via you know, short short distance radio. Like
you see people out on the tarmac. They're waving those
flags around and they're not just saying like over here,
over there, you can actually spell things out.

Speaker 1 (04:42):
By over there. That's exactly right.

Speaker 2 (04:47):
Uh yeah, but that's what they're doing. It's it's a
it's a way of communicating over a long range where
you can't hear somebody.

Speaker 1 (04:54):
Yes, So the the N, which for nuclear is two
lines that basically come apart at a forty five degree
angle away from the guy holding or the person holding
the semaphores right right, So they're standing there straight as
an arrow with their arms out to their sides downward
holding the flags. That's N. You're spelling an N if

(05:16):
you do that right. If you want to do a D,
you hold one flag straight up in the air, one
flag down, maybe throw your head back all a flashdance
just for a little extra touch, and you're spelling a
D for disarmament. So if you put that in a circle,
but you have friends, is the peace sign aka the
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament logo.

Speaker 2 (05:40):
And that could be coincidence? Is that what we're saying here.

Speaker 1 (05:44):
It's not possible, it's coincidence.

Speaker 2 (05:46):
Okay, So what are you saying then? That Holt them
was just.

Speaker 1 (05:50):
I don't know if he was misquoted, if he'd forgotten.
I just don't understand the Goya thing because it doesn't
even show up in a Goya painting.

Speaker 2 (05:58):
Yeah, I just looked up the paint. He's definitely got
his arms up.

Speaker 1 (06:01):
Yeah, there's no mistaking it. I mean maybe if you
turned him upside down, but no.

Speaker 2 (06:07):
So the they made these badges out of white clay
that they had baked, and the message was basically, if
there was a nuclear war, these badges would be one
of the few things left behind that would survive. You know,
that's fine, But the symbol I think was enough. It
was very simple, it was very easy to reproduce, and

(06:30):
very key. Before he take the break, we will mention
that Holtam did not copyright this thing because he wanted
it spread far and wide, and that's exactly what happened.

Speaker 1 (06:40):
Yeah. I was going to suggest we left it as
a cliffhanger whether he copyrighted it or not, but I
think you made the right decision.

Speaker 2 (06:47):
All right, then let's say this. Did he copyright it,
Let's find out after the breakup.

Speaker 1 (07:14):
So we said that these pacifists that were into nuclear
disarmament in the late fifties prefigured the hippies, and they
definitely didn't. What's interesting is the peace symbol is a
direct connection between those two groups. Because oh, we didn't
say Gerald Wholsome did not copyright his creation. It was

(07:36):
free for anybody to use, and he did that on purpose.
That was a very deliberate thing for him to do,
because at first he was spreading this message for nuclear disarmament,
but as the hippies kind of adopted it and took
on more and more other stuff that they wanted to
see changed for the better, the peace I kind of

(07:57):
morphed and evolved from a symbol that everybody recognize meaning
nuclear it's or meant to one that meant just peace
in general, a whole catch all is what it became expanded.
That's right.

Speaker 2 (08:08):
And like we said many times already, he didn't copyright
this thing, so it was very easy to distribute without
having to worry about, you know, fear of legal repercussions
or paying somebody for its for its use. So all
of a sudden it was, you know, it was all
over the place and just became ubiquitous and tied to

(08:29):
this idea of peace, which you know, peace and anti
nuclear war is not the biggest leap, but it was
definitely not the peace sign until Vietnam came around.

Speaker 1 (08:42):
Yeah, it's also kind of expanded to be a symbol
for the struggle to be recognized and treated equally like
women's rights movements, environmental movements, the apartheid anti apartheid movement
all adopted the peace symbol. The ruling part of South
Africa tried to ban it in fact, yeah, and that

(09:04):
did not take And Gerald Holton, for his part, he
wanted the peace symbol on his headstone and he didn't
get it. I don't know why I just spoiled that,
but it seems weird to me. Like if you say
I want something on this on my headstone, there are
very few cases where I think people should be like, no,

(09:25):
we're not going to put that headstone. But he wanted
an inverted peace symbol in the in the manner of
Agoya peasant being executed exactly.

Speaker 2 (09:35):
He was like, instead of hands down, it should be up,
like symbolizing growth and like a you know, the tree
of life where mankind lives. And I guess whoever was
in charge of his funeral said.

Speaker 1 (09:48):
Nah, right, I'm sick of that stupid symbol.

Speaker 2 (09:52):
Very strange.

Speaker 1 (09:53):
There's one other thing we got to throw in, and
that's the Mercedes Ben's logo.

Speaker 2 (09:57):
Yeah. I mean, you can't go to Atlanta Falk's football
game without seeing that peace sign there on the stadium. Yeah,
I'd kind of wondered about this, but obviously I didn't
put too much thought into it because I knew that
the Mercedes Benz company had been around long before the
nineteen fifties, and that was the case.

Speaker 1 (10:18):
It was first, it was it was actually the Daimler
brothers adopted it as a logo. They adapted it from
a postcard their father had sent them, and their home
had been marked on the postcard with a three pointed
blue star. They're like, let's make that our logo, which
is sweet and wholesome until you realize what the three
points of the star stand for the company's dominance of

(10:40):
products for use on land, see and air, which is
not exactly peace symbolish, so it's not at all related.
That's right, Chuck said, that's right. I'm out of stuff
to talk about, so short stuff's out. Stuff you should
know is a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (11:00):
More podcasts My Heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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