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Book Gives Peace a Chance at Its Due

The emblem may be recognizable around the world, but few know the story behind the symbol.

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To mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War in March, the People’s Coalition brought the universal peace symbol to life in an anti-war protest at the Santa Barbara Courthouse Sunken Garden. (Robert Bernstein photo)

Seldom does a book-length biography get written about a symbol representing a secular, cultural, nonfiction movement. But former Santa Barbara resident Ken Kolsbun not only got one together, he induced

National Geographic

to publish it with help from acclaimed author Michael S. Sweeney.

The emblem at the center of

Peace: The Biography of a Symbol

was designed 50 years ago to represent the peace movement, but many other social activists soon adopted the badge of protest.

It was designed in 1958 for a four-day protest march from London to an atomic weapons research plant in Aldermston, 52 miles away. The familiar design is a circle with a vertical line through the middle, and lines extending downward 45 degrees each way from the center line. It is based on semaphore flag signals for the letters N and D, for nuclear disarmament. The N is sent by both arms holding flags extended downward at 45 degrees. The D is represented by holding one flag straight up, overhead, and the other directly down. While the semaphore system has largely been replaced by electronic communication, the now-universal symbol for peace thrives boldly around the world.

The symbol was the brainchild of Gerald Holtom, a textile designer who died in 1985 but with whom Kolsbun was in contact earlier. Holtom’s family opened much of his material for use in the book.

Kolsbun lived in Santa Barbara from 1964 until 1990, and he and his wife, Jannine, raised three daughters here. Kolsbun was a peace activist when he began his long research into the life of the nuclear disarmament emblem.

Sweeney, listed by the publisher not as co-author but as “with” Kolsbun, is a noted author in his own right and a journalism professor at

Utah State University

. Kolsbun said National Geographic brought in Sweeney “for one month to put the book into historical context.”

Peace: The Biography of a Symbol is a flamboyant package. In hard cover, it runs 176 glossy pages, about half of which are photographs and other colorful illustrations. They depict protest demonstrations and their leaders, and the many uses and elaborations of the peace ensign.

The book is as much a brief history of the peace movement as of the emblem. The symbol waved through the Cold War and its nuclear arms race, the human rights demonstrations of the 1960s, stoked by the flames of the Vietnam War, the hippie cultural demolition at Woodstock in 1969, student rebellions, the Nixon resignation during the Watergate scandal and other vices.

Eventually, Kolsbun said, “The use of the peace symbol came full circle in the middle and late 1970s as activists enlisted it in campaigns to end the construction of nuclear power plants and to disarm the world’s nuclear superpowers.” The book describes and illustrates one of the many 1977 demonstrations against the construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County.

“During the fall of 1981, eight major European cities saw mass demonstrations, each attracting between 200,000 and 500,000 protesters,” Kolsbun writes. “Avoiding nuclear war became a crucial issue almost overnight. It made the peace symbol hip again.”

By the end of the 20th century the Cold War was over but there were “brand new wars ... among sites of ancient sectarian conflicts: the Middle East, the Balkans, and multitribal African nations. New fears arose that ‘rogue’ nations might find ways to develop and deploy smaller nuclear devices. At the same time, peace activists found new places to deploy the peace symbol.”

From time to time authorities — the military, for instance — attempted to ban the design in clothing, buttons, decals or in other displays. Sometimes it was superimposed on the American flag. In the end, the right to wear and display the symbol was usually upheld by the courts.

Although it originated in Britain, the peace sign lacks any country’s display of nationalism. It exhibits a quest for world peace, not conquest. And it welcomes the support of religious groups without indicating support of any single theology. Some adversaries have misrepresented the origin of the emblem. The John Birch Society at one time claimed it resembled an anti-Christian “broken cross” carried by the Moors when they invaded Spain in the eighth century. Others said it looked like a World War II Nazi insignia.

Because no one holds a copyright or trademark on the symbol, it’s available for use without anyone’s permission. So it turns up freely on belt buckles, fabrics, vehicles, publications, letterheads, walls and fences — and hundreds of other places. It was on a 33-cent U.S. postage stamp in 1999.

Peace is not yet with us, but the emblem survives as a symbol of protest and hope.

Retired longtime Santa Barbara newspaper journalist Robert Sollen lives in Carpinteria.

Click here

to see more of freelance photographer Robert Bernstein’s work.

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