Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)


One of the most widely known symbols internationally, in Britain it is recognized as standing for nuclear disarmament, in particular as the logo for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). However, in the rest of the world, it is known more broadly as the peace symbol, and gained profound visibility during the 1960s and 1970s U.S. antiwar movement. During the 1958 Easter weekend, CND organized the first major anti-nuclear march from London to Aldermaston, where Britain manufactured nuclear weapons. The symbol first appeared in public during this march. The symbol quickly crossed the Atlantic, as Bayard Rustin, associate of Martin Luther King Jr., came from the U.S. to participate in the first Aldermaston march. He took the symbol back to the U.S. where it was used in Civil Rights marches, and subsequently in antiwar demonstrations. As the movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew by encompassing a rich mixture of political, racial, economic, and cultural spheres, the symbol gained extraordinary visibility through thousands of demonstrations held nationwide. Simpler to draw than Picasso’s peace dove, it was even seen scrawled on helmets of American GI‘s who opposed the war. The antiwar movement reached its zenith under President Nixon; in October 1969, 2 million people participated in antiwar protests nationwide. The following month, 500,000 demonstrated in Washington D.C. and 150,000 in San Francisco. The antiwar movement gradually declined between 1971 and 1975 with continued U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam.

Although it has parallels with older occult and anti-Christian origins, the nuclear disarmament/ peace symbol we currently know was designed by CND member Gerald Haltom in 1958 to serve as the badge of the “direct action committee against nuclear war.” His initial attempts included encircling the Christian cross, which was ultimately rejected after priests he consulted didn’t want to see the cross in a protest march. Borrowing from the military flag code of semaphore, he adapted the symbol‘s “arms” from the semaphore letters “N”uclear and “D”isarmament. The first nuclear disarmament badges made by Eric Austin of the Kensington CND also employed conscious symbolism. He painted the black symbol on white clay, attaching a note explaining that fired pottery badges would be among the few objects to survive a nuclear blast.