Alissa Walker | Essays

War Is Over! If You Want It

Yoko Ono and John Lennon with peace campaign poster against the Vietnam War, 1969. Photograph by Frank Barratt/Getty Images.

When the star of the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon is asked by a reporter what he thinks Nixon should do to end the Vietnam War, Lennon stares incredulously into the camera. "He should declare peace." As if this was the most obvious solution in the world.

Sitting in a movie theater in September, I realized this was the most brilliant thing I had ever heard. After years of being politically aloof, I suddenly felt my first swell of social activism rise within me, and with it, the smacking realization that the person who made me feel this way had been dead since 1980.

After the movie, my boyfriend and I drove silently to a Thai restaurant where a man in a studded white jumpsuit named Kevin sings Elvis songs, and sometimes, Beatles songs, too. When I finally opened my mouth to talk about the movie, my eyes started to sting, though my tears had nothing to do with the curry before me. Every designer I knew was struggling to find the right message that could make the world a better place, and all Lennon ever had to do was open his mouth and the whole world tuned in. We sat there, mourning the death of Lennon 26 years later, weeping into our Thai iced teas.

The film told a story I did not know: As their voices became as well known for speaking out against the Vietnam War as they were for their music, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came under heavy surveillance by the FBI. An investigation, only recently fully declassified, included an unbelievable four-year-long attempt to deport them. The film goes to great lengths to juxtapose the government's atrocious behavior with Lennon's cheeky pacifism. Machine guns spray a combat-shredded Vietnam; he's in bed with a dozen people singing "Give Peace a Chance."

Peace was possibly the one ideal that most characterized Lennon's persona. And eventually, it evolved into one of the most powerful messages of all time — a message that originated as Lennon and Ono's Christmas card:

Happy Christmas from John & Yoko

As 1969 came to a close, Lennon and Ono's idea grew beyond printing a few posters. As Ono notes in the movie, Lennon was the one who dreamed big. "I said let's have T-shirts," Ono remembers, "and John said, 'Let's buy billboards.'" The posters were displayed as billboards in twelve cities across the world. And the message appeared not only in mass-produced posters and postcards, but in newspaper ads, and on the radio and television. It was the first multimedia campaign for peace.

This message, mind you, is black type on a white background — center-justified, no less. There's no design credit, but this is fitting since there's little design here. And yet, over thirty years later, it's still being quoted, appropriated and reproduced. Sadly, it's still all too resonant.

In 1971, Lennon and Ono, with the Harlem Community Choir, recorded their message as a peace anthem — a song that has also become a Christmas standard: "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." According to the John Lennon Museum, Lennon wrote the song to get people to see war at a grassroots level — and to take responsibility for the world around them. When I heard the song the first time this holiday season, innocuously floating down from the ceiling at Borders Books, I sank to the ground in the magazine stacks. Again, I was overwhelmed by Lennon's simple wisdom. And, for the first time, I actually listened to the words.

So this is Christmas. And what have you done? The opening lines, sung so nonchalantly by Lennon, serve as a call-to-action. The holidays becomes the moment in the year for personal assessment, to review your choices. And to make things better. If you want it.

Alissa Walker is editor of the design blog UnBeige.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Music , Obituaries, Social Good

Comments [31]

I would heartily agree that the slogan is brilliant since it states a perceivably complex issue, then presents the solution simply and succinctly. While we live in a more complex society than we did even a few decades ago, we will never be elevated to a point where simple doesn't work. The reason we rarely see such simplicity is the fact that simple is hard. Most don't have the creativity required to grapple with the complex, simplify it, and execute the idea well; instead becoming fettered by the idea of simplicity.

Another simple, arresting slogan, although crafted to sell goods and services, comes to mind: "Think Different." I suppose it depends on the context in which it's presented, but I think Lennon would have appreciated the message.

As far as making the world a better place, it's disappointing that we tend to wait until the end of the year to reflect upon choices made throughout it. Subscribing to publications such as Good Magazine, becoming involved with political causes like Seeing Red, or charitable programs run by your local religious institution would not only be be great undertakings, but would ensure one doesn't forget to do good works throughout the year. There are also several national and cross-culturally focused programs from the AIGA as well which allow one to flex the creative muscles for a good cause. In fact, I would say that there are so many opportunities to do good, it has become a complex proposition itself. Maybe we need someone to eloquently simplify this problem as John Lennon did with war so many years ago.
James D. Nesbitt

what have I done..

i wish I could have lived in new york when john and yoko where active..

but, for me, as a designer, I have directed all of my efforts to proving to developers that there is reason and obligation to pursue communal design. responsible design. financially and for the general welfare. we are obligated as members of a society to perpetuate that society in the interests of our grand children.

to what do I owe this honor?
rishi desai

This message, mind you, is black type on a white background — center-justified, no less. There's no design credit, but this is fitting since there's little design here.

On the contrary, I've admired the design of this message since the first time I saw it. Every decision is right: the typeface, the letterspacing, the contrast of black and white, the decisive change of scale between large and small. All deployed with a degree of consistency that would be the envy of Saatchi & Saatchi or J. Walter Thompson. I can see how this completely understated, confident professionalism would be impossible to dismiss as the sentimental ravings of a pair of hippies. Brilliant.

One thing I never noticed, until now, is the resemblence between the attitude of the WAR IS OVER poster and Tibor Kalman's overall art direction of Colors., right down to the use of the same centered typography. Direct inspiration? Two people responding with similar tactics to the needs of a similarly urgent message? Decide for yourself.

Michael Bierut



This article reminds us also of Avante Garde's anti-war poster contest announcement. Designed by Herb Lubalin . It is time we have another design competition based on the theme: NO MORE WAR!

In November, right before Thanksgiving, I entered a design contest and I broke the rules by writing my own copy. I added the word "PEACE" to the text.
I think most New Yorkers would agree that PEACE is a HIGH
Carl W. Smith


A manefestation of one of John's other phrases: "Imagine Peace" on a billboard in downtown Minneapolis.
eagle eye


It sounds nice. Am I the only one who has no idea what people think it means?
Gunnar Swanson

Gunnar, you are not alone.

It cannot have a literal meaning, since many genuinely want no wars while wars continue. Maybe they don't really want it?

It's a great emotional appeal to like-minded folk. So maybe it has meaning in a language I don't understand?

It looks like a newspaper headline, so maybe it's a call to create a new reality through the power of positive thinking? Whatever that means...

A child-like sentiment presented as if it were the product of adult thinking?

The executive summary of the lyrics to Imagine?

A parallel of designers designing for themselves rather than for those whose choices must be affected?

A kindred spirit who believes his craft is initimately connected with all of human experience and is imbued with implicit nobility?

Perhaps proof that all accountants are Presbyterians?

this sign was made in a time when typography was an art not a skill.. that's what makes it so beautiful. the sans-serf boldness is sweetened by the visually pleasing spacing.

so i think

The problem with peace is that you may want it, you may live it, and you may even "imagine" it, but if the other doesn't...you're dead.
Bernard Pez

I was born in the early 70s, so I don't remember the Lennon/Hippie Peace Movement.

However, I remember hearing often how the actions of peaceful protesters and "flower power" helped turn America's opinion against fighting in Vietnam.

Yet, here it is in 2006, and I have heard several times that current opposition to the Iraq war is so strong because we DON'T have loud protests from irritating hippies,college protesters (and Lennon-like celebrities) - the kind that turned people OFF to the peace movement.
Of course, I think a lot of this talk is coming from neo-cons who are trying to re-write history to support the current administration's unsupportable strategy (or lack thereof).

Because of these "revisionist historians" people who did not grow up during Lennon's life might get the impression that this is true, and that the peace movement wasn't a major force of good.
Perhaps enough people will see this movie to get a sense of how things really happened. Let's not have this part of American history fall down the memory hole.

Art, writing, military and "human" history ...

Left, right, centered or "justified?"

Joe Moran

As much as I resented Yoko for "breaking up the Beatles" I admired how active Lennon and Ono were when it came to putting themselves on the line.

"War is Over" was more than unadorned typography, it was an act of courage. Despite this simple sentiment Lennon and Ono were vilified for taking a stand. And this wasn't the only time. I was art director of the Irish Arts Center in NYC when they donated the royalties of two songs ("Bloody Sunday" and "Give Ireland Back to the Irish") to the cause of Irish culture (rather than to the IRA). I was art director of the NY ACE when they donated money to keep this short-lived "underground" alive. I remember meeting them at a small fundraising party at the basement office of the paper, and John talked about starting a foundation (kind of like Apple for social causes) that would give peace of all kinds a chance. He really meant it.

BTW, Yoko is still at it with her "ONOCHORD" (http://www.a-i-u.net/news.html) a simple conceptual art project that tells the world "I love you." It may sound foolishly idealistic, but its better than the alternative.

steve heller

or in the immortal words of my friend louis klein from the socialdesignsite: we cannot not change the world.

america definitely can in 2008.

It sounds nice.

I understand that I may have sounded snotty or dismissive. I hope I am neither. I have never doubted Lennon or Ono's sincerity and there is clear thought behind much of what they did and said.

I don't believe that their poster "presents the solution simply and succinctly," however. It seems a bit like the famous cartoon of the scientist at the blackboard with "then a miracle happens" inserted in the middle of his formula. Or maybe I just don't understand which complex issue is being solved. Can someone explain?
Gunnar Swanson

'07 Like Heaven?

Life is but a dream.
Joe Moran

Joe Moran

There is only the illusion of complexity projected onto such situations, that's what nation-state wants us to believe. The answer is always simple, but the politics and hubris isn't. "Let us succeed in Iraq so your own child's death will not be in vain," is the current BushCo response to 3,000 deaths. Pathetic. They might as well say: "More must die to prove us right."

A most excellent adaptation of this famous piece was proposed by Daniel Eatock for a billboard which read:


Following the same style as the original Ono-Lennon statement. In London. In 2003, just before the start of the current Iraq conflict.

The power to end is also the power to never begin. Too bad our inept and coopted media was too "embedded" to understand the whole fiasco.
Andrew Blauvelt

Or maybe I just don't understand which complex issue is being solved. Can someone explain?

The WAR IS OVER poster isn't an essay on international relations.

It's a simple, and to my mind, extremely effective, communications device: a classic bait-and-switch, in effect. The big headline makes the surprising, joyful announcement. You read that first, and psychologically you are momentarily projected into a world without war.

The small type beneath (If you want it) qualifies the statement, returns us to reality, and reminds us that each of us have a degree of agency, no matter how small, in whether war exists in the world. (It was the reluctance of so many people, including the news media, to accept that agency that led us into Iraq.)

It's hard to get the full effect of the poster once you've become so familiar with it, including all its associations with John and Yoko, the sixties, etc. But it's worth noting that newstands in the UK customarily display the days headlines in precisely this way. I bet it was amazing first time around.

Michael Bierut

Thanks, Michael. That was a good analysis of how it works as a rhetorical device. Others' claims of simplicity seem to say something else, however. Since I'm not sure specifically which "such situations" Andrew Blauvelt is referring to, I have to wonder whether he really believes that the [right] answer is simple rather than the answer he opposes—escalation of a failed/tragic/insane/arrogant/ignorant/immoral policy to justify said policy—being simply wrong.

Speaking of answers, the following are actual (i.e., non-rhetorical) questions for those who seem to claim that this is literal, obvious, clear, or simple:

Are we talking WAR like some specific conflict, WAR like military force wielded by certain entities, or WAR like any major violent conflict anywhere? All war or wars, whatever war is on the front pages, whatever war my taxes are partially financing?

Does IS mean right now, straight up present tense or some subjunctive, conditional, speculative meaning? IS like actually, physically and in reality or is this a spiritual statement, a declaration of moral solidarity, or some other definition of is?

OVER like never happen again or like out of style—so 1940s, or what?

Are there alternatives or additions to IF or is YOU WANT IT the only path and WANT[ing] IT sufficient?

Does YOU mean me or everyone or the "you" that was on the cover of Time or some other person or people being addressed? Does everyone have to want it or just people who see the poster or read Design Observer? Am I causing all the wars by trying to figure this out instead of just wanting?

Is the WANT like staying hungry, giving 110%, and killing your grandmother if she gets in the way wanting it or just preferring war to be over as compared to some other specific choice? If someone says "I want to refuse to let armed invaders rape my mother and sell my children into slavery and violence is the only recourse I can think of" is that not WANT[ing] IT? (And is that person the YOU?) Is the WANT[ing] cumulative and collective—if some of us WANT really hard, does that count as much as if more of us want but not as much?

Is "to be" implied after IT or is there some IT in the construction other than WAR?

Does any of this help me toward a pragmatic improvement of the world or should I just shut up and bask in moral superiority since I object to war? Are any of the following worthwhile paraphrases:

War is like forest fires and Smokey is right.

Take personal responsibility and do something to end insane actions that we are collectively responsible for even if you prefer to pretend that someone else is the culprit.

War is a policy choice and it is usually a bad one and we all share the weight of anything done in our names.

War is a policy choice and it is always a bad one and we all share the weight of anything done in our names.

War is a tragic and immoral failure of imagination and we all share the weight of anything done in our names.

Can anyone help me out here or is all of this like a Christmas card (with or without kids singing), a wish that is sincere but more of an obligatory social statement than a believed-in attempt to change reality? Am I missing the social cues and taking this too literally, acting like someone telling a sales clerk to mind his own business about my day and don't tell me to have a nice one?

If so, sorry. And have a nice day. And Happy New Year.
Gunnar Swanson


Accept the sublime, embrace your bliss.

As Freud would have said: Sometimes a WAR is just a WAR. This one may not be OVER, but it could have been OVER (and maybe never even started) if our politicians had backbone and foresight.

I don't think you're missing social cues, I think your just asking a little too much of a simple romantic act. War is Over if you accept WAR as horrid a word (and deed) as any in our shared language. For too many WAR is romantic, Lennon and Ono's act was their poignant attempt to de-romanticize it.

Flow with it, and peace!

steve heller


I don't think I ask too much of the simple romantic act. I also think the act/poster lives up to my grand expectations. Michael's explanation gets to the point for me: A beautiful image followed by a reminder of broad responsibility for that image. My worry about the gap in the narrative is shown at the place where I think Michael went wrong: shoving it off on "so many people, including the news media" along with your spineless politicians (and, perhaps, Andrew Blauvelt's nation-state.)

The punch line is, for me, what the poster was (and is) all about. "You" (singular, not plural, i.e., me, you, Michael, Andrew, etc., rather than the reflective gimmickry of the Time cover) not "them." In that sense, it isn't an essay on international relations but it does demand an essay's worth of thinking of each us rather than just a hope that politicians will grow backbones and insight and that politics will become simple. So I see it as a simple call to complexity.

I'll work on the flow and bliss stuff. And I hope we'll all work on the peace part.
Gunnar Swanson

I think your just asking a little too much of a simple romantic act.

I think Steve is right, Gunnar. There are certain statements you have to accept on an emotional level and this is one of them. Another might be:


In which I think it would be unwise to ask:

I as in I right now, right here in this moment; I as in all eternally I; the passively, casually I; or the innermost being of I?

LOVE as in love like a lover, a brother, a mother, a child, a friend, all human kind, or a piece of cake?

YOU as in "You looking at me?" or as in everyone?

Peace. (Don't ask.)
marian bantjes



But would it be unwise to ask if you're writing it to me or to everyone who reads Design Observer? It's nice either way but it does make a difference. (If to me, we'll talk about what that means in a less public forum.)

My problem isn't with accepting messages on an emotional level but with the almost inevitable sanctimony of those who believe that they have accepted it and others have not, thus leaving the others to blame for the world's ills. Like many great statements of moral responsibility, I think the poster leaves too many people room to say "I get it so I'm okay."

I believe in vision and in moving people's minds but I'm enough of a pragmatic systems designer to want some of that vision to be about what will really happen.
Gunnar Swanson


If you want it.

Randall Hoyt

Interesting, All of the comments are from left
Although, I do not think there is much
disagreement between the left and the right.
My favorite quote for world peace is "When
both sides love their children more than they
hate their enemies".
Imagine That!
Tom Walker

My above comment was all right justified before "the man" reformatted it... :)
Tom Walker

Tom, I would not characterize my comment as being from the left though it was left justified. I would hate to be pegged from the right as well. Gunnar, I think your questions are fair. I happen to love John Lennon as a song writer but I think there was something that was peculiarly time-bound about his message/billboard - and a bit facile. At best his statement had a specific context, late 60's, and while no doubt he was reaching for the universal, it was coming out of the particular times. When universalized it stikes me as supeficial. Indeed war is over if you want it but I think your confusions are fairly stated - all wars are not the same. Perhaps we may aspire to end war, perhaps we may aspire to peace, but our apspirations are hardly shared by many and human nature seems to possess boundless evil, which may at times lead to the need for war. So as noted above, you may want it but "they" may not. An awful circumstance but real (though not in Iraq). I would prefer to talk about justice first, justice for all implies a lot of conflict, and then have a conversation about war.
Bernard Pez

I'm a skeptic when it comes to thinking that advertising, of any kind, really changes attitudes. But the genius of Lennon's poster, it seems to me, is that it anticipates this. The bold brashness of 'WAR IS OVER!' can be seen as a comment on the way the political establishment attempt to make anything the truth simply by promoting it enough. The real message is in the delicate little drowned out voice underneath: 'If you want it'. The matter is not about mass communication and political action, Lennon appears to be saying: it's about personal choices.

This message is still equally valid - and, apparently, equally unheeded - today. The question is not about rallying mass opposition to the 'war' in Iraq (I put this word in quotes because the problem would seem to have less to do with the willingness of the Bush presidency to wage war than it's inability to make peace) but about whether we really want to live in a peaceful world.

Ending the military intervention in Iraq remains irrelevent to this end, as long as US society - and polity - continues to be obsessed with supposed threats, challenges, opposition and misunderstanding from those beyond its borders.
James Souttar

This has absolutely nothing to do with the topic...

I was taught (many, many years ago) that type that lines up on the left side and rags on the right is called "flush left" not "left justified" and type lined up on the right is correctly called "flush right". Likewise, type that is centered is simply called "centered". But I have read a number of posts here that refer to type being left, right or center "justified". I have always thought that the term "justified" refers to type that ends up the same length on each line so that it appears both flush left and flush right at the same time.

Is this antiquated? In the computer age did the terms change?

Chunks of copy set justified often have odd rivers and valleys caused by the adjustment of word spacing to make the lengths come out equal on each line - and is not as pleasing as flush left (to my eye).

OVER like never happen again or like out of style—so 1940s, or what?

Like being on top of...


Like the two of them with their faces above their poster (not holding it up over their heads) cradling it, many of us now feel as they did then.


Steve, sorry I misspelled your name over on the 'graphic glass ceiling' thread.

"The bold brashness of 'WAR IS OVER!' can be seen as a comment on the way the political establishment attempt to make anything the truth simply by promoting it enough. The real message is in the delicate little drowned out voice underneath: 'If you want it'."

This is classic Lennon. It reminds me of Paul singing "it's getting better all the time" and John retorts "it can't get much worse"

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