The Museum at Bethel Woods Assistant Curator Julia Fell explores the history of the peace symbol and how it became an important symbol of Woodstock.
First thing’s first: Did you know there is a difference between peace “sign” and peace “symbol?” There is! Let's get into it.
The Peace Sign
You’ve probably flashed a peace sign before, using your index and middle fingers to make a “V.” Though it’s called a sign, similar to gestures used in sign language, this one is not the actual gesture for “peace” in American Sign Language.
Instead, it originated as a way to show “V” for “Victory” during World War II. Later, President Richard M. Nixon famously used it also to mean “victory.” Though Nixon was a pro-war president in the 1960s and ’70s, anti-war activists at the same time co-opted the “V” sign to identify themselves as peace-seekers. This interpretation of the gesture is mostly what it is used for today. Though, if you find yourself around the Museum you might see the peace sign used as a COVID-friendly greeting!
Origins of the Peace Symbol
Now, on to the peace symbol! While with one glance its meaning is apparent, to understand the origin of the peace symbol, we must look closer. Though this symbol is so closely associated with anti-war (and sometimes by extension anti-military sentiments), its very design was inspired by naval semaphore code.
Semaphore is traditionally employed by seafarers who use flags held in different positions to communicate across distances, such as between two ships at sea. So, how does semaphore translate into the peace symbol? Well, it’s very simple: the semaphore positions for the letters N (where the flagger stands with their arms in an inverted “V”) and D (where the flagger stands with one arm straight up above their head, and the other straight down) when combined form the inner line structure of the symbol.
At this point you may be asking: what do “N” and “D” have to do with the peace symbol? Well, now we’re getting to the bottom of it! You see, “N” and “D” stand for “Nuclear Disarmament.” Nuclear Disarmament was a movement that emerged after the Second World War. The use of nuclear warheads by the United States against Japan in World War II had proven just how catastrophic such weapons can be. Then, the Cold War brought a constant threat of nuclear destruction. The call for the disarming of nuclear weapons around the world argued that peace amongst nations could never be achieved while even just one of them harbored these weapons of mass destruction.
And so, Nuclear Disarmament, N.D., gave us the peace symbol as we know it today. In the United States, along with the underlying threat of the Cold War and nuclear disaster, additional tensions brought on by the Vietnam War and the fight for Civil Rights ramped up the movement for peace. Anti-War and Civil Rights activists took on the symbol for nuclear disarmament as a symbol for all peaceful causes.
Fun Fact: The designer behind the peace symbol, a British man named Gerald Holton, decided to never copyright his design so that anyone could use it free of licensing restraints. Thanks to Mr. Holton, the peace symbol will always stand as a free and accessible symbol of peace to whoever wants to use it.
The Peace Flag
So how has the peace symbol been used in the 1960s and beyond? Since it is a fair use image, it can (and has been!) put on anything: buttons, t-shirts, posters – you name it. But there’s one use of the peace symbol that isn’t as free-spirited and unencumbered as the others: The Peace Flag.
This hybrid flag, which places a peace symbol in the blue field of the U.S. flag, was used in the United States in the late 1960s in opposition to the Vietnam War. The peace flag was most commonly flown at anti-war demonstrations and rock festivals, but also used as wall decorations, particularly in college dorm rooms. To those flying the flag for the cause of peace, the meaning was positive: a hopeful symbol for a more ideal nation, with American people united and stronger in peace than they ever could be at war.
However, to those who believed in the need to go to war in Vietnam, and those who fought there, this flag can stir up the opposite emotion. To some, the peace flag defaces the traditional stars and stripes and comes across as a mockery of American values and sacrifices. Both perspectives are equally valid and combined paint a picture of America’s complex relationship with both war and peace.
Three Days of Peace & Music at Woodstock
Although it does not appear in the marketing for the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair (another, more ancient metaphor of peace, the white dove took center stage), the peace symbol nonetheless had its place at the historic festival and in how we think about it to this day. Attendees of the Woodstock festival adorned themselves with the peace symbol. The peace flag pictured above was taken to the festival by donor Mark Shustak, where he and his girlfriend wrapped up in it to keep dry during the rains. Several other items from the Museum’s collection which feature the peace symbol were worn by people at the festival:
The security force at Woodstock used the peace symbol on their staff shirts to let attendees know that they were not there to cause violence, rather to keep things in order. In fact, the security team, comprised of many hired individuals as well as members of the Hog Farm commune, was sometimes referred to as the “Please Force” or “Peace Force.”
Today, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts memorializes the historic field used for Woodstock, a piece of the festival footprint which is a part of the National Register for Historic Places, by etching a peace symbol into the lawn each year. In 2020, the Peace Overlook was completed at the top of the festival hill. It is a place for quiet, peaceful contemplation with a beautiful view of the entire Woodstock site.
Beyond the '60s
Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the peace symbol has still remained, recycled throughout the decades for other causes and worn as a symbol of one’s identity. Though the 1960s counterculture died down over the decades, those who live the lifestyle hold onto the peace symbol yet. It has also enjoyed a renaissance or two in popular culture. If you’re a millennial (like me), you might remember the peace symbol (and peace signs, daisy flowers, yin yangs, and hearts) dominating juvenile fashion and accessories as we experienced a resurgence of “flower power” in the early '00s.
Though appearing to children as a cute, friendly, fashion statement, throughout the first decade of the new millennium, the peace symbol popped up frequently in the midst of the trauma experienced by the United States post-9/11, and the resulting war in the Middle East. Around this time, on its own 50th birthday in 2008, the peace symbol graced the runways, notably making appearances in designs by Moschino, Tiffany, and Michael Kors.
In 2015, the peace symbol was used by French artist Jean Julien to create a new symbol for peace in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris that year. It stood for a renewed commitment to global peace as nations and individuals around the world rose to stand in solidarity with France.
As it rounds on its 63rd birthday in 2021, the peace symbol remains steadfast as a constant, concise, and poignant reminder to give peace a chance. As we bring this blog post to an end, take a moment to reflect on where you’ve seen it, and what this symbol means to you. Peace out!