From Quakers to campus radicals to holiday greeting cards, a brief history of the season’s most ubiquitous phrase | Columns & Letters | Spokane | Interior of the Pacific Northwest
“Ppeace on earth” is a pretty, seemingly vanilla sentiment for a greeting card, but not too long ago that was a radical notion. In fact, the idea was a betrayal a few centuries ago, and only became a “movement” in the last 100 years. A turning point was the creation of that little symbol you see on all those bumper stickers.
This icon has a history, traced back to England in 1653, when a religious leader faced death; in Spain on May 3, 1808, when thousands of innocent people were murdered by Napoleon’s troops; and until 1958, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The story begins in 1648, when a strange young man named George Fox preaches peace around London, but not in churches. He preached in the markets or in the open field. The devastating 30-year war in Europe was ending and England’s own civil wars were underway.
Fox’s preaching caught the attention of the authorities, and he was imprisoned several times. A judge laughed saying that Fox would “tremble at the word of the lord.” This is how the name “Quakers” was coined, for the religious movement properly known as the Society of Friends.
By 1653 Fox and his challenge to the English war were seen as a real threat. Oliver Cromwell had Fox arrested and brought to London. Speculation was rampant that Fox would soon be found swinging from a hangman’s noose.
The two men met and, to everyone’s surprise, Fox was released. Apparently, Fox “spoke truth to power”. In his recollection of the meeting, Fox wrote that Cromwell was taken by his mark of Christian worship, and “with tears in his eyes he said, ‘Come home to me; because if you and I were only an hour of the day together, we’d be closer to each other,” adding that he meant no more harm to me than he hurt his own soul.
Aif we all know, the war continued. Although the 30 Years’ War was the last religious war fought on European soil, the nation states that rose up in the wake of it soon found plenty of reason to kill each other.
It is only 150 years later that Europe will be torn apart again, via the Napoleonic wars. One of the campaigns in these wars was the Peninsular War (1808-14), fought in Spain and Portugal. This marked another deadly twist, as it was labeled as guerrilla warfare at the time – and is still considered the first such war by historians.
The painter Francisco Goya occupies a unique niche in the history of art; he is perhaps considered the last of the Old Masters and also among the very first of the Modernists. While beauty was aesthetic enough for the old masters, Goya added truth to his art. In the last years of the Peninsular War, Goya turned to war. In The disasters of war, he documented the atrocities perpetrated in his country with the honesty of a photographer. Goya’s awareness and skill enabled him to become the first modern anti-war artist.
Despite the atrocities from the Napoleonic wars, humanity did not learn much. After the dawn of the 20th century, the world was soon thrown into another major war – the First World War. Then a failed peace led to an even larger conflict – World War II.
A United States Navy commander, Albert Bigelow, served in this conflict. While returning to Pearl Harbor on August 6, 1945, he heard news of a devastating new weapon being dropped on Japan.
All these centuries of war and suffering have been punctuated by these apocalyptic moments. Humanity had perfected the art of war so much that they could now kill a city in a single instant. Wasn’t this finally proof that the war had to end?
Deeply troubled, Bigelow looked for ways to protest. Ultimately, he found solace in a religious group – none other than George Fox’s Society of Friends. Through these connections, Bigelow and his wife Sylvia housed two women from Hiroshima who were in the United States for plastic surgery, severely disfigured by the atomic blast.
Bigelow’s faith and experience in warfare dictated the action. In 1958 Bigelow and four others sailed his 30ft boat The golden rule from California to Hawaii, with the ultimate destination being the Marshall Islands, where the United States would test another nuclear bomb.
Bigelow was arrested and imprisoned in Hawaii, but not before his mission gained widespread notoriety. Another Quaker, Dorothy Stowe of Vancouver, British Columbia, was so impressed with Bigelow that she borrowed his tactics for a small group she formed in 1971, the Don’t Make a Wave Committee.
Now we call this outfit Greenpeace.
As Bigelow sailed to oblivion, the people of the world saw for the very first time a strange symbol floating on a banner above The golden rule. Freshly designed nuclear disarmament symbol debuted. Now we just call it the symbol of peace.
Around the time Bigelow was hunting Japanese submarines around the Solomon Islands, an Englishman of fighting age was spending the war years working on a farm in Norfolk. Gerald Holtom, you see, was a conscientious objector.
During World War I, some 2,000 Americans who refused to participate in the war were confined. Others with religious or moral apprehensions were allowed to serve on the front lines or as medics. During World War II, some 12,000 conscripts who refused to participate were put to work in labor camps. In England there were 60,000 conscientious objectors during World War II, and they, like Holtom, were put to work at home.
Holtom was also horrified by the atomic bomb and he joined the campaign for nuclear disarmament. An artist by trade, Holtom has created a symbol that the CND will use for an upcoming protest. Basically, the design is meant to mimic the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D” (“N”nuclear”D”armament), but when Holtom thought about it, the simple little symbol had deeper meanings too. .
As he wrote to peace news, Holtom says, “I was desperate. Deeply desperate. I drew myself: the representative of a desperate individual, hands palms outstretched and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant in front of the peloton of execution [Actually, The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid]. I formalized the drawing in one line and put a circle around it.”
Holtom completed the symbol on February 21, 1958, and immediately donated it to the public domain.
Bigelow wasn’t the only one who clung to the symbol. The student peace movement in the United States was underway on college campuses at the same time. Philip Altbach, a student and peace activist at the University of Chicago, traveled to London in 1960 and brought to campus with him a bag of buttons with the logo on them. Who cares if they were designed for nuclear disarmament? It would also serve as a banner to fight against the Vietnam War. Or it could even be used to articulate solidarity with the civil rights movement, as believed by Bayard Rustin, an early adopter of the peace symbol.
In the 1960s, the Altbach Student Peace Union reproduced and sold thousands of buttons on college campuses.
Today, millions of articles are covered with the mighty little symbol of Holtom, just as the phrase “Peace on Earth” has been engraved on the modern holiday season. It has almost become routine.
But in the weeks to come, as you see those words, hear those words, or say those words, realize that the phrase didn’t fall into the public domain by accident. Over the centuries, George Fox, Francisco Goya, Gerald Holcom, Albert Bigelow and others have taken a radical idea and turned it into perhaps humanity’s deepest statement of intent. ♦
Adapted from a Interior Holiday guide essay first published November 23, 2006.