It is unclear if Gerald Holtom, the conscientious objector and graphic designer who in 1958 created CND’s now iconic symbol for the first Aldermaston march, anticipated the truly global impact the simple logo would have in subsequent decades. It became arguably the most recognisable protest symbol in modern history, spanning a range of continents and causes worldwide. However, its recently renewed popularity- in high street stores as an apparently retro fashion icon- has arguably diluted the fundamental message of Nuclear Disarmament the logo embodies.
Combining the semaphore versions of the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’, while also representing an individual with palms outstretched, these intended meanings of the symbol, thanks partly to CND’s trailblazing impact at the head of the Cold War peace movement, were gradually transcended by it becoming synonymous with just ‘peace’, pure and simple. This largely occurred during the course of the sixties, as CND’s prominence receded in favour of the anti-Vietnam War movement and its own use of the ‘peace’ symbol. Consequently, Holtom’s beautifully simple design for Nuclear Disarmament found its meaning, for many who sported it on badges, painted it on campervans or adorned it on placards, altered.
Nonetheless, while its message may have become obscured as it gained global status, it still remained a symbol of popular protest and peace, and subsequently one that still reflected the morality and politics advanced by CND.
Today however, in the wake of thirty years of rampant neoliberal consumerism in the west, to what extent- to those outside peace activism- does Holtom’s symbol retain any political meaning at all? A recent turn in fashion has seen it re-appear on tee-shirts and high street mannequins across the country, though it seems unlikely that many consumers buying and wearing the logo- annexed as it has been by consumer fashion chains- are aware of its direct and original meaning.
At face value this appears to be a negative development for CND. What the iconic logo stands for seems to have shifted in consumer-society’s consciousness. It has moved from a firmly political, anti-war banner of the Cold War activists into a trendy (and therefore profitable) designer logo harbouring vague connotations of a free-spirited, anti-authoritarian past. Furthermore, the very fact of its current commercial value is one that seems counter posed to the movement as an explicitly non-profit, non-commercial organisation. Indeed, it was CND’s own noble decision of neglecting to register the symbol as a trademark, arguing that it was ‘a symbol of freedom’ and therefore ‘free to all’, that unavoidably permits the fashion industry to cash in on its new-found commercial value.
However, as unwelcome as the retailers’ appropriation of the symbol may be to peace activists, its new found prominence may also present CND with an opportunity. The situation we face is that CND’s own symbol, championing nuclear disarmament, is witnessing a renaissance in the public eye. If we can kick-start a renewed, grassroots dialogue about Holtom’s design, its Aldermaston origins and so on, we’ll move towards a situation where a trend in high street fashion and CND’s own message draw closer. Re-iterating what the symbol stands for to those who wear it could be a simple way of renewing mass awareness of and even support for the Campaign.