In 1945, an estimated 340,000 people died when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
After those attacks, other countries around the world began developing their own nuclear bombs. And soon, people were worried that wars would be too destructive. In Britain, a group people who were concerned about the large number of nuclear weapons all over the world united to form a group that advocated for peace and getting rid of large destructive weapons of war. These people advocated for something called nuclear disarmament, and so they called themselves the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The CND was founded in 1958 and that same year they asked the artist Gerald Holtom to design a symbol for them — one that would symbolize the end of war and destruction and serve as a sign of peace and unity. That symbol is now universally known as the peace symbol, which is a circle with a line and three prongs pointing downward.
There are a lot of conspiracies about the meaning of the peace sign, but Holtom himself said that the image is a sign of sadness and despair. According to the CND website, Holtom, who was himself an advocate against war, explained the symbol: “I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outward and downward in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalized the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”
The image he’s referring to is a famous painting by the artist Francisco Goya, who in 1814 painted an image of a poor man standing before a firing squad of soldiers raising his hands in surrender. The image titled “The Third of May” commemorates the resistance of the Spanish people to Napoleon’s forces.
You can see easily how the peace sign looks like an upside down man in front of the firing squad raising his hands in surrender.
The symbol was quickly adopted by other movements that seek to bring peace to the world. It has been used in civil rights marches of the 1960s and during the Black Lives Matter marches today.
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Holtom’s image, simple and unique, is now a symbol of peace and unity all across the world.