Much of the media firestorm surrounding the recent protests in Tehran focuses on the globalized nature of the conflict. From Twitter executives meeting with the State Department to Youtube videos of rallies, the internet has brought the Middle East conflict into the public eye. However, buried behind these technological marvels which have brought the world closer together stands a much older, overlooked symbol of globalization: "The Peace Sign" or, as known to Winston Churchill, "The V for Victory." There is remarkable continuity from the Great Lion to the brave protestors in Iran.
In June 1941, Axis forces held control over most of continental Europe. A blitzkrieg attack on Poland left that country in Nazi hands, and German troops marched down the streets of Paris. Great Britain stood as the only obstacle in the path of Hitler's conquest. With the majority of the fighting on African fronts, the British Command fostered resistance movements in the occupied countries, hoping to undermine German morale and Nazi infrastructure in lands the Axis had already pacified. In a series of BBC broadcasts, Douglas Ritchie, better known as Colonel Britain, urged resisters in France, Poland, and Holland to take up a V sign as "the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories...Splash the V from one end of Europe to another. Take a vow to continue faithfully this fight in the best way you can for your country's independence."
The "V sign," a hand gesture of the letter V formed by two fingers, quickly caught fire. It appeared "chalked on the pavement, penciled on posters, scratched on the mudguards of German cars." Some argue today that the "V campaign, waged mostly through radio and leaflets, was directly responsible for the formation of active resistance groups throughout the entire continent." Churchill popularized the gesture, bringing it international fame and cementing it as a symbol in American, British, and world culture.
In the post war years, politicians continued to use the "V." Upon his reelection in 1948 against Thomas Dewey, Truman's motorcade rode under an arch in the shape of a V for Victory. Eisenhower continued the trend when he gave the two fingered salute after delivering his acceptance speech the night of his win in 1952. While evidence does not show that Kennedy used the sign, Lyndon Johnson did while campaigning in 1960. Arriving at the Democratic National Convention, Johnson, "threw up his hands as his partisans below roared approval...the fingers of his right hand formed the V for Victory sign." Perhaps the most moving use of the gesture was Bobby Kennedy's in 1968. After giving a speech at a hotel in Los Angeles, and, "[h]olding up the V for Victory sign with his right hand, he stepped from the stage and started out of the hotel through the kitchen. There a gunman's bullets cut him down while the adjoining ballroom was still enveloped in a torrent of happy sound." Ultimately, the V for Victory survived the intervening years between World War Two and the 1970s because of these politicians.
However, the gesture radically shifted its connotations from a politician's tool to the hallmark of the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era. This most interesting evolution of the V is also the most difficult to trace. The evidence suggests that the gesture gradually evolved into the peace sign as college age protestors, both pro and anti-war, used it to signify resistance and a moral victory. As the hippie anti-war movement adopted the sign so thoroughly, it co-opted the symbol itself, attaching connotations of peace atop older, established ones of victory. By the 1969 Woodstock festival, newspapers referred to the "V" as "The Peace sign."
After the 70s, baby boomers, rock stars, and politicians like Maggie Thatcher kept the two fingered salute alive. Closer to the present, Iraqis flashed the image during their first election. One iconic photo of a proud-faced Iraqi woman with her finger stained purple in the shape of a V graced the world's media outlets. Thus the "V" came to the Middle East.
In Iran, today, the symbol reappears, confirming how it has become an international sign of protest. Pictures of Iranians decrying election results splashed the front page of the New York Times on June 17th and 18th, and a thumbnail in the June 18th Wall Street Journal shows just a hand flashing "V." Other photographs abound.
Once again, supporters of freedom and democracy use Churchill's emblem to oppose tyranny. Just as the Great Lion fought the oppressive Axis powers, the citizens of Iran fight the corrupt re-election of Ahmenajad. Both wield the same sword, a symbol so powerful it has withstood more than half a century. By using this now global "V," the people of Iran send us a clear message today: They, like all people, yearn for true democracy.
Forget Twitter. It is the "V" which binds us all together.
This post is largely based on a paper I wrote, "V for Victory: The Evolution of a Multinational Symbol," which won the 2008 DeLaney Kiphuth Prize in History at the Hopkins School in New Haven, CT.