The history of the disarmament symbol has been subject to much speculation over the years. It was actually designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a professional artist and graduate of the Royal College of Arts. He presented his early designs to the Peace News office in North London and, significantly, to the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, one of the groups that helped to set up CND. The symbol was first seen in public during the 1958 Aldermaston march and from that moment onwards became identified with CND and its objective of nuclear disarmament.
Ironically the symbol itself is a mix of the military semaphore signals N — representing nuclear — and D — representing disarmament (semaphore alphabet). However, Holtom, a conscientious objector during the Second World War, subverted this use of semaphores by placing the D over the N, the “upside down logo” signifying his anti-military principles. In a more personal account of his design, Holtom later wrote to Hugh Brock, editor of Peace News, saying,
‘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.’
Although there remain alternative stories explaining the logo, the letters and interviews of Gerald Holtom clearly demonstrate the roots of his idea.
The symbols were used on more than just CND placards; Eric Austin of Kensington CND made the first badges, using white clay with the symbol painted black. Unsurprisingly these badges made their own unique statement, made out of fired pottery they would be one of the few human artefacts to survive a nuclear inferno.
Furthermore, the design itself has constantly been adapted by various groups within CND and for specific occasions – with a cross below as a women’s symbol, with a daffodil or a thistle incorporated by CND Cymru and Scottish CND, with little legs for a sponsored walk etc. Despite previous reservations about using religious imagery, Christian CND modified the symbol so that the central stroke extended upwards to form the upright of a cross.
This “CND logo” was not however confined to these shores. The “peace symbol”, as it is usually dubbed outside Britain, was first brought over to the United States by Bayard Rustin, a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and a protestor at the 1958 Aldermaston march. Consequently, the symbol was used in civil rights marches and later spread to anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Since then it has appeared around the world not only as a sign for nuclear disarmament but also as the international hallmark of peace.
The real power of this symbol is clear in the reaction it provokes from both its supporters and enemies. During the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Government attempted to ban the logo, while various far right and fundamentalist groups have tried to undermine it, suggesting hidden links with Communism and even Satanism.
Although specifically designed for the anti-nuclear movement it has quite deliberately never been copyrighted. No one has to pay or to seek permission before they use it. A symbol of freedom, it is free for all. This of course sometimes leads to its use, or misuse, in circumstances that CND and the peace movement find distasteful. It is also often exploited for commercial, advertising or general fashion purposes. We can’t stop this happening and have no intention of copyrighting it. All we can do is to ask commercial users if they would like to make a donation. Any money received is used for CND’s peace education and information work.