A conversation with the man who brought the peace symbol to the USA
In September 2012, Susan Smith, founder and president of LooptyHoops, interviewed Philip Altbach, who is credited with bringing the peace symbol to the United States. The interview is below.
Can you tell me your story about learning about the peace symbol? I was national chairman of SPU (Student Peace Union) which was then one of the largest left wing student organization in US and definitely the largest of the peace oriented organizations and was sent by SPU at the invitation of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which was this very huge, massive organization against nuclear weapons in the UK to mainly go to a big rally they were having at Royal Albert Hall in London and sort of go around, express solidarity I guess we would say it now, with the peace movement there which I was of course, happy to do. I was, I don’t know, a sophomore or junior at college at the University of Chicago at the time, and was much involved with the student movement and had never been abroad except to Canada. And certainly had never been on an overseas airplane flight, I was a kid!
So there were two of us who went over and had a very interesting time, of course, trying to do our thing and I was impressed by what we now call the peace symbol which was the CND’s (Center for Nuclear Disarmament) emblem, which had been designed for them , I’m sure you know this because there are a couple books out about them. This guy, Gerald Holthom. And I found out what it meant, and all this and I said “Hey, this is cool.” That was not 1960’s speak…it might have been.
I stuck a bunch of them in my pocket, these little pins, and brought them back to our national headquarters in Chicago, and I said to my colleagues “These are very nice and they have a very nice meaning.” The SPU had no symbol at the time, we used a little kind of leaf pin which we used, which was from the Japanese Anti-Hiroshima Commemoration Group, and we also used the Fellowship of Reconciliation broken rifle thingie, but we had no symbol of our own.
I said, “This is really nice. It’s simple, people can draw it, and it has a meaning and so on.” And it took me quite a bit of time to convince them, believe it or not, that this is a good idea. They finally said okay, let’s print up 20,000 of these buttons and started selling them, giving them, whatever, putting the symbol on some of our printed material and the rest is history. Could be wrong on size by 18,000 but when people ask me the question, that’s what I tell them, and I think it’s about right.
What made you think it would be something people would buy or would be interested in? My kind of artistic sense, it was just attractive and it was worked exceedingly well in Britain. They were all over the place, not only with the CND but people would write them on walls. It was something that was easy to do. It was not a mass market thing. It was used by CND as their political symbol but nobody else (was using it). It wasn’t on T Shirts except ones sold by that organization. It was a real mass movement unlike the Student Peace Union or the other student peace organizations here which were still pretty small and SPU was of course, limited to campuses.
So it was never really a business for you personally, it was only through the SPU that it was first distributed? Yes, that’s right. You’ve probably discovered from your research, there was another organization in the US that used it, much smaller than ours but contemporaneously used it as well, which was also Chicago based, called the Committee for Nonviolent Action, which was a pacifist organization, and they used it for their demonstrations and stuff.
Do you remember how they found out about it? I suspect they either found out about it through us, which I doubt or the same way that we did, that is, one of their folks went to Britain and said hey this is nice but I don’t know the exact story. The main thrust was the Student Peace Union because we were a national organization and had chapters on lots of campuses.
Did your organization sell them or give them away? Both. We used them as a fundraiser.
Do you remember the largest distribution of them? People started printing it up on their own. Different regional and local SPU groups just started printing up buttons. I have in my house buttons that I collected. There were Christian groups that superimposed a cross on the little button, there were buttons that had the peace symbol off centered and with something else on the button, there were some that were bigger and had the names of our name, sometimes SPU or other local chapter names or other organizations that started using it. We had no control over it and we didn’t try.
How did it feel to see it grow in early days? Great! It was very surprising to all of us, especially my colleagues who weren’t in favor of it! My wife has one from 40 years ago. People started making jewelry with it.
Do you remember when it moved off of buttons? Where did it move first, did it move to a T shirt or somewhere else? I don’t know, that would be an interesting dissertation for someone to pursue, I don’t know. I know we did T shirts, and as I said we put it on our printed material right away. When it moved into the broader culture, I don’t know.
When you brought it in to the PSU is that when it transitioned from a nuclear disarmament symbol to a peace symbol? Yes, because frankly speaking we were more than nuclear disarmament as an organization although we were mainly that. But on this side of the ocean, nobody knew what it stood for, except me and a small number of people. Nobody knew what the design meant , that it was the Center for Nuclear Disarmament symbol, it was just the organization’s symbol and then it moved into the broader (use of peace symbol), that it’s for peace and all of its permutations so when we brought it in it was no longer just nuclear disarmament.
And I think that’s what happened in Britain, too, it was more identified with CND because as I said before CND ( Center for Nuclear Disarmament) was a major national movement but it moved into the mainstream there relatively quickly as well and began to symbolize more than just that organization.
Do you remember a time when you personally thought wow, a lot of people really know about this symbol? Yes, early on, it took off pretty quick. We all thought that’s great, it spreads the word, and that’s what we are about. Unfortunately, maybe, we didn’t take advantage of it as a commercial tool either for the organization or for any body. Even if we could have, who knows if even by that time if it was trademarkable or not but it never crossed our mind.
You were looking at the higher purpose. Yes.
Did you ever have a relationship with Gerald Holthom who designed it? No, not at all. In fact, I don’t think I found out where it came from until later.
So you didn’t meet him when you originally went over to Britain? No. We asked what it meant, so I knew from the beginning that it was the semaphore symbol and it meant ND and all that and explained it to my colleagues and anyone that was interested.
Some of the research said that he wishes he had designed it with the arms up, were you aware of that? No.
He had asked for it to be shown that way on his tombstone (He laughs) but they didn’t keep his request, they showed it in the traditional manner on his tombstone. That’s funny. That’s interesting. No, I had no idea and I wonder if it would have “flown” had it been the other way just as an artistic matter.
How did that time in your life impact the career you ended up choosing? That’s an interesting question. I’ve always been politically more or less engaged and working in universities all this time is probably related but not directly so.
What about who you are today? How did those early activities and things you were involved with in SPU, how do you think that affected who you are as a man? Also, good questions. It certainly gave me a lot of skills of organizing and speaking. And also instilled with Social action and interest and sympathy, and shaped my political views which have been relatively unchanged I think over time. It’s made me famous among members of his family. How does that happen? He’s the guy who brought the peace symbol back, that’s pretty nice. I do tell the story, I used to give a class on student political activism and would mention at the end of the class, here’s what your professor did and that wowed 5 or 6, well, some of the students over time.
Well, it’s an example, a reflection of how small steps and decisions that we make can really have an impact, and can have world-wide consequences. Yes, that’s true, and things that can happen that are totally unanticipated. Like who would have thought?
When you think back about it, what do you think is important about the peace symbol throughout its history? Well, I wish it were – it symbolized the movement at the time, which had xxxxxxxxx goals, which had some impact on I think especially the test ban, stopping nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere and this kind of thing which kind of moved us along in the broader scheme of things in a small way, it didn’t prevent big countries from building thousands of nuclear war heads which was the main point, but it had a minor role in public opinion. And then it began to symbolize a broader “isn’t peace a good value?” Of course, nowadays probably 99% of the people who wear T Shirts have no idea what it means at all.
You don’t think so? No, I take it back, I do think they realize it’s kind of “peacey,” a peace symbol and they think that’s a good thing, but they don’t think anything further, unfortunately. But overall it’s been a positive thing in the world
And there is an element of international language with it, isn’t there? Yes, absolutely. People all over the world recognize it for what it is.
Yes, it’s really iconic at this point. Yes, exactly. And some number of people , maybe you, will make money off of it.
My interest is getting exposure for it and I’m really excited that it will have its 55th anniversary next year (2013) and you know it is iconic, and all over the world, and an international symbol for something that‘s very important still and I tend to think that people who wear it are expressing at least a value. Yes, at least a significant number of them, yes.
Final question, how does it feel when you see perhaps a child wearing it, or when you see it in the world today, how does that make you feel or what goes through your mind? Yes, well, a tiny little amount of satisfaction. Certainly. No question. We got things going. As I said before, who would have thought it? There are many other things we do in life, that lead nowhere at all, 99% of them.