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Divergent Politics and the Symbolism of Peace in a Nuclear World: Eastern Cranes and Western Doves

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

If you were asked to draw the symbol of peace, what would you draw? Over the course of the twentieth century, a variety of symbols have marked the call for peace. Some of these were borrowed directly from religious iconography, such as the dove and the olive branch, while others reflect antiwar sentiments like the poppy or the broken rifle. Those two particular symbols emerged as antiwar critiques following World War I. By the 1950s and 1960s, new symbols arose in response to the threat of nuclear war and because of the ideologically-charged proxy wars in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. During this period, protesters on both sides of the Atlantic re-appropriated the “V for Victory salute” as well as the British nuclear disarmament emblem in their quest for a pacifist foreign policy and nuclear disarmament. For this post, however, I am mostly concerned with divergent peace symbols from the 1940s and early 1950s. During this period, the two competing symbols for peace reflect the hemispheric divide between East and West as well as the ideological disconnect between socialist and democratic governments.

The list of symbols I’ve given above reflect either a concern about war in general or the potential lethality of nuclear proliferation. Both of these issues factor into the history behind the emergence of chains of paper cranes or senbazuru as symbols for peace. The origami crane became a symbol of peace toward the end of the Second World War. Whereas the war in Europe was over in May of 1945, in the Pacific Theater it fiercely continued into August. Americans encountered fierce and entrenched resistance at the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and the Japanese military showed few signs of surrender that summer. President Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities had devastating effects on the Japanese people though, and it changed the nature of warfare ever since. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th instantly killed 70,000 people, and three days later the city of Nagasaki was targeted killing another 80,000 before the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. The before and after aerial of Nagasaki clearly shows the destruction the bomb caused to the city.

The burgeoning of the Atomic Age resulted in hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians needing ongoing medical care for burns and radiation sickness in the decades that followed. The harrowing oral histories from survivors, known as hibakusha, or the bomb-affected people, can be heard with English dubbing at the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s website: .

One of these hibakusha, was the two-year old Sadako Sasaki, who is pictured to the right with her father. She lived roughly one mile from the Hiroshima drop-site with her family and was affected by nuclear fallout. This young Japanese girl dreamed of teaching physical education as an adult, but the seemingly spry young runner developed a cold and dark spots on her legs in late 1954. She was diagnosed with leukemia—an after effect of nuclear exposure. By August 1955, a month after this photograph was taken she was bedridden, but she and others in the hospital received paper cranes from neighboring villages as an expression of hope. This spurred her to action and by the end of the month she had folded 1,000 paper cranes on all different kinds of paper scraps. Sadako died in October of 1955 a few months before her thirteenth birthday, but through international news reports students from all across the globe learned about her desire to fold 1,000 paper cranes. This is why on the International Day for Peace (September 21) students across the globe still participate in folding paper cranes.

Students in my classes are often amazed that the crane became such a popular symbol for peace since they are more familiar with the dove. In a number of Asian cultures, however, the crane, with its outstretched wings, symbolizes positivity and longevity. It is viewed somewhat as a guardian angel for children. Furthermore, the practice of origami has religious roots and there is a folk-belief in Japanese culture that if one folds a thousand paper cranes, as Sadako did, then the folder will be granted one wish. Thus, the act of folding becomes a type of petition. Sadako’s wish was to be cured from the painful disease afflicting her and for her family to succeed against adversity, but her suffering and determination has inspired countless children and adults across the globe to wish for something more--peace.

In recognition of the global resonance of the cranes hand-folded by their dying daughter, the Sasaki family gifted the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum a number of them in her memory. More recently, some of the young girl's cranes have been given to cities that have experienced tragedies, particularly in the age of terrorism, and some can be seen in museums that discuss World War II. Their inclusion in exhibits offer a small but powerful example of the civilian costs of the war. You can see some of Sadako's cranes below, and the very first image of this post is the result of a student-led memorial for Sadako dedicated in 1958.

Sadako’s experience has influenced the call for nuclear non-proliferation and peace, but during the Cold War political differences emphasized certain parts of her narrative. In the West, she was the suffering saint archetype—a young girl affected by the bomb whose life’s work was a call for sustained peace. In the Soviet Union and across much of Asia, however, she was more clearly depicted as a victim of American aggression and representative of the human costs of technological warfare. The Soviet postwar connection to cranes, however, is influenced by but runs much deeper than Sadako’s death.

In the decades that followed the Great Patriotic War, or what we call simply World War II in the West, the Soviets infused the pacifist symbol of the crane with the bloodshed of soldiers on the battlefield. The crane came to symbolize the spirits of the unknown and unrecovered soldiers who sacrificed their lives against the Nazi invaders. Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 Mosfilm feature The Cranes are Flying focuses not only on the experience of soldiers in battle, especially in a dizzying death scene for the Red Army recruit Boris, but also on how Soviet families were forced to pick up the pieces of their lives after the massive death and destruction caused by the Nazis and their affiliated nationalist forces who took part in Operation Barbarossa.

The central figure for this award-winning, Thaw-Era film is the character Veronika. As the film portrays in sequence, she not only loses her lover Boris, who surreptitiously volunteered for service, but also her parents when the Germans bomb their apartment building. Veronika then turns to Boris’ family for shelter, but this too turns sour when she is raped by his cousin and blackmailed into marrying him. His fortune unravels though when it is discovered that he avoided the draft through bribery and assaulted Veronika. The film ends as the victorious Red Army soldiers return. Although one of Boris’ fellow soldiers confirms the worst news possible to Boris’ family, Veronika is moved to reward each soldier she encounters with a flower before watching cranes fly over the city of Moscow.

This transmutation of broken bodies into cranes was carried further by the Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov, who visited Hiroshima in the early 1960s and was touched by the memorial to Sadako Sasaki. His poem, which later became popular as a song simply titled Zhuravli, begins with the idea of soldiers lost on the battlefield, the anonymous dead, transforming into the cranes that float above the earth. This conveys the idea of loss and the human cost of the war whether as one who fought it or as a civilian like the young Japanese schoolgirl. Gamzatov's poem is even part of a unique memorial to the Red Army fallen erected in West Hollywood by the Russian community that lives in California.

Unlike their eastern counterparts, Western Europeans and Americans adopted the symbol of the dove. Perhaps, the most famous and expensive representation of this symbol is Picasso’s 1949 painting La Columbe. (Actually the painting is of a pigeon he was gifted, but who is an ornithologist these days?) A little over a decade earlier, the famous cubist artist captured the horrific costs of warfare with Guernica; so, he was no stranger to antiwar sentiments. In the immediate postwar period, Picasso’s own politics shifted. He had long been anti-fascist whether in Spanish, Italian, or in German form, but now he was openly friendly to the French Left, particularly the Communists. It was his relationship to French communists that brought the symbol of the dove to the international forefront when a pared down version of his dove was used as the logo for international conferences on peace.

By 1956, the symbol had such universal presence that it was used to critique Soviet commitments to peace following the Red Army invasion of Hungary to topple a student-initiated revolution in October 1956. It should be noted, however, that by the time that the Soviets intervened in Hungary there had already been a protracted conflict in Korea that divided the peninsula based on political spheres of influence.

The different symbols of peace and their meanings for particular cultures reflects the intricate relationship between politics and culture. In both the East and West there is something spiritual about both the dove and the crane, but the Western dove does not readily bear the weight of the sacrifices, civilian or soldier, during the war that cranes came to symbolize in the East. Furthermore, both Westerners and the Soviets had their reasons to doubt the opposing side’s commitments to peace, and this only grew worse throughout the Cold War.

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