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At 50, the peace symbol is still going strong

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A soup cup at Peace and Love, a cafe in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, shows off the restaurant's logo. (Photo by Beth Kowitt)

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Peace and Love, a cafe in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, gives the 50-year-old peace symbol a prominent role in its logo. (Photo by Beth Kowitt)

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Peace and Love, a cafe in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood, uses the 50-year-old peace sign in its logo. (Photo by Beth Kowitt)

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A peace symbol, drawn in red spray paint, marks the side of a wall near a shopping center in Bellingham, Wash. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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A peace symbol consructed of green and red lights adorns a house in Bellingham, Wash. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

When Sergio Elizondo decided to open a café in New York City’s trendy Tribeca neighborhood just over a year ago, he and his partner wanted to give it a name that would turn heads. Today, lunchtime at his Peace and Love café is filled with business men and woman standing at a sleek counter sipping lattes and gourmet soups from cups adorned with the store’s logo--a red peace symbol inlaid with an orange heart.

“We wanted to choose a symbol that’s easy to remember but also represents a way of life and a culture,” Elizondo said.

The peace symbol has certainly come a long way from its original intent. Fifty years ago this month Englishman Gerald Holtom, a conscientious objector during World War II, designed the symbol for the antinuclear group Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, and it soon after became the permanent logo for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The sign--whose design revolves around the letters “N” and “D” to highlight the group’s main objective--made its first public appearance during a protest march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, where researchers were developing nuclear weapons.

Five decades later, Holtom’s design is everywhere, from beach towels to postage stamps to graffiti scribbled on bridges and underpasses across the U.S.

“The symbol is probably as well known as the Coca-Cola symbol,” said Ken Kolsbun, the author with Michael Sweeney of “Peace: The Biography of a Symbol” due out in April from National Geographic.

Still, added Kolsbun, there is so much that Americans need to learn about the symbol, which the self-described peace activist says he has worn on a button since 1968. Most people can’t even draw it, he said. “They end up drawing a Mercedes symbol.”

The CND logo made a quick jump across the pond in the late 1950s, when American antinuclear activists involved in the British cause brought it home to continue their work. The move toward a broader message of peace started with the Partial Test Ban in 1963, which limited the testing of nuclear weapons. Then the peace movement’s focus shifted to the Vietnam War, said Lawrence Wittner, a leading researcher on peace movements at the State University of New York at Albany. “Naturally the movement just continued with the symbol.”

Since then, organizations with goals ranging from civil rights to feminism to environmentalism have adopted the sign as their own, incorporating it into their logos.

“It’s still going against the grain of dominant culture,” said Wittner, the author of “The Struggle Against the Bomb” and a national board member of the antinuclear group Peace Action (whose symbol is a dove). “The peace symbol is still a cutting edge symbol.”

That has made it appealing to protesters around the world, particularly because it so quick and easy to draw, added Wittner. In countries where governing forces view peace as a subversive activity, “It might be handy to have a symbol you could scrawl on the wall in the middle of the night,” he said.

The symbol’s spread has also been helped because the design was never copyrighted by either CND or Holtom, a lifelong designer and peace activist who died in 1985. “We wanted it to be for popular use and not as though it were some commercial logo,” said CND’s current director, Kate Hudson.

Of course the peace symbol has had a lot of commercial uses--belt buckles, cigarette lighters, coasters. Hudson says her group prefers the symbol not be used to make money, but overall they are delighted that it has gained such widespread appeal.

Kolsbun argues that using the peace symbol to sell knickknacks doesn’t really hurt. “It’s being exploited, but that’s the way we do it in America,” he said. “But that’s not going to dampen the meaning.”

What role the symbol is playing in America today is up for debate. Some say the protests against the Iraq War since 2003 have thrust the symbol back into the spotlight. “It’s definitely making a huge comeback,” said Kolsbun’s co-author, Michael Sweeney.

Wittner, however, said he thinks peace groups today use the symbol more infrequently than in the past, perhaps for strategic reasons. “People relate the symbol to the Vietnam War, and some people might be offended by that,” he explained. “It might trigger a red flag.”

Back in England, people at CND are planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their movement, and their world famous logo, by gathering at the site of the Aldermaston protest in March.

Hudson expects the symbol will not disappear anytime soon. “As long as campaigns for peace continue,” she said, “the symbol will be right at the center of it.”

E-mail: esk2007@columbia.edu