The History of the "V" Sign for Victory and Peace

The History of the “V” Sign for Victory and Peace

Imagine being in a crowd during WWII England and experiencing the groundswell of emotion in witnessing Winston Churchill attempting to use a “V” sign for the first time when certain working classes in the region mistook it for something offensive. Such was the case with Churchill, who had to be told not to use the “V” sign backward (meaning the back of your hand facing forward when forming the “V”). This was to give universality to a new sign that would soon sweep the globe, symbolizing victory over the enemy.

This apparently wasn’t Churchill’s direct brainchild. It came from the creative people at the BBC who were doing everything they could, while working in conjunction with PM Churchill, to rally the people who were still in shock and fear from the Blitz that the Nazis had inundated London with during 1940. By the beginning of the year, a sense of unity and defiance had to be accomplished, and the media would be the one to ultimately make it happen.

In this campaign, the BBC had the brilliant idea of taking the “V” sign (already known in France as meaning “Victory” and “Freedom” in the Netherlands) and giving it a physical sign people could use for solidarity in winning the war without having to use words. But Churchill used a lot of eloquent words first when speaking on the radio. His adamant radio speech in January of 1941 outlined the suggestion to use this hand gesture and championed the idea, urging everybody listening to the BBC overseas to do the same. It truly was one of the most brilliant war effort campaigns ever and still holds as such to this day. It was something simple, not requiring money or complicated explanations for millions of people. Holding up two fingers (in the right direction) was all it took to set Britons and most of Western Europe on the right foot to overcoming almost impossible odds.

But then there’s the issue of it being an offensive gesture in some parts of Europe when done with the palm facing inward. During a time of solidarity, Churchill probably had to be reminded of the division of the classes in England when he was told that he was possibly giving a defiant symbol by doing the “V” gesture in the wrong direction. It isn’t really certain if it meant “F off!” then as it did later and does today, but many British historians will tell you that it already did in the U.K. long before. Ironically, it was usually a patronizing gesture given to authority figures, and the lower classes in London, who apparently created it off the streets, probably had a chance to have a stress-busting laugh seeing their great Prime Minister telling them to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine… rather.

The eerie musical DNA of the “V” sign that was also used during WWII

The “V sign” has a colorful history. “V” is the Roman sign for the number five, and Adam Weishaupt used it in the Illuminati to symbolize the “Law of Fives.” But there’s more to it. In the Cabala, the meaning for the Hebrew letter for V (Van) is “Nail.”

“The Nail” is one of the secret titles of Satan within the Brotherhood of Satanism. According to some beliefs, Satan uses this sign to let us know that it is one of his favorites. This is further evidenced by his preference for the pentagram (Penta = five!) and the five-fold salute used in Masonry and Witchcraft.


Connective strings that seem beyond chance always fascinate me–and the story of the “V” sign in Morse Code having the same note values as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opening motif (“da-da-da-dummm”…defined as “defying the fates”) is just one of the strangest coincidences and little-known tales of WWII in England. When the BBC picked up on that strange connection, they always ended their broadcasts for the night with that Morse Code symbol for “V.”

It made the “V” symbol possibly one of the most subtle war effort ideas, too, and it seemed to get under the skin of the Nazis–despite many starting to use it themselves after concurrently listening to the BBC regularly to see what Churchill was saying.

Once it became more of an international phenomenon rather than endemic to England, the BBC decided to end the “V” campaign a year later. It was merely intended to get them off the ground anyway to attempt a stiff-upper-lip victory.

How did the “V” sign end up as a peace sign during the Vietnam War?

Here I am again in an umpteenth article telling you how Britain started pretty much everything—at least when it comes to pop culture and entertainment. This time, though, it’s a bit different in that their centuries-long traditions don’t necessarily flip-flop as dramatically as the WWII “V” symbol did, transforming into something meaning strictly peace in a protested way.

During the 1950s, Bertrand Russell led the way in anti-nuclear protests in England. These were the first of their kind to have massive sit-ins to protest a nuclear research center located in the U.K. and the fears of where it was going to lead before the decade was out. It’s amazing how fast nuclear technology and protests against it developed just ten years after the war, especially when some parts of Europe were still cleaning up the rubble.

Instead of using Morse code as a symbol, these protesters, led by Russell, decided to create a new symbol to go with it. This was more of an adamant sign that when they meant peace, they weren’t just talking through their hats. The creation of this symbol marked a significant moment in the history of protest movements, emphasizing the determination and seriousness of the cause.

After the “V” sign was established more as a peace sign, the famous and complementary graphical peace sign was created and designed by Gerald Holtom, a graphic artist and a strong part of this new anti-nuclear movement. Of course, people have analyzed this piece of art for decades–trying to place supposed occult Freemason symbols to it and even connecting it to a symbol the Nazis used during the war. The truth is, it was influenced by semaphore (or Navy flag symbols) using the letters “N” and “D” for “Nuclear Disarmament.”

Somehow all of this made it to America by the early 60’s when the peace hand sign started to be used by early versions of Hippies who started protesting the Vietnam War not long after JFK’s assassination. This proves how England influenced the Hippie Movement to some degree. Even so, Americans of the later 60’s took the hand sign to a new level when they associated it with “(Free) Love” rather than merely “Peace.”

examples of how the peace symbol is being used
A few examples of how the peace symbol is being used.

Interesting how the use of two fingers could go from the offensive in the streets of Europe to the drama of “Victory”, to “Peace”, then “Peace AND Love”…and then into much more casual territory today of using it as rabbit ears behind someone’s head in photos when that person isn’t looking or hopefully not easily offended.

What would happen if it became a war symbol of “Victory” today?

A lot of people don’t use the “V” symbol today other than to mean “Peace,” and most don’t even use it all. Since it’s fairly universal now in its meaning, you can’t help but wonder if it’s still being used out there on the battlefield as we fight the war on terror. While the military uses a form of the two-finger gesture to give the symbol of keeping your eye on something…imagine having an all-new hand signal that could create a psychological rise in troop morale during one of those 24/7 danger days in the streets of Baghdad.

Something so simple shouldn’t be scoffed at when hand gestures can still communicate things more profoundly than a rambling morale speech can.

Of course, creating such a symbol would have to start with an astute leader who can sense what works and what doesn’t.

George W. Bush has his old three-fingered “W” hand gesture that gets its own share of controversy–but it’s going to have to be a new President who can look at the subtleties of pop culture and how symbols can truly bring out the best in people to instigate true action so results happen. Of course, we remember that Churchill had brainstormers at the BBC come up with the “V” symbol for him.

Maybe using the Vulcan salute or an invented hand symbol for “Godspeed” on the battlefield shouldn’t be out of the question. All it would take is a little easier variation on those symbols so nobody would have to think too much before attempting to use them in the throes of battle and chaos.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.