It Was 50 Years Ago Today

In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono surprised the world with their legendary “War is Over” campaign. Here’s how it happened.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT, 1969, offset
lithograph, Courtesy of Yoko Ono Lennon. © Yoko Ono 1969/2019

By Tim Gihring

On December 15, 1969, millions of people across the world woke up to a bold and curious slogan: “War is over! If you want it.” It appeared on billboards in 12 major cities, from Tokyo to Toronto to New York, signed ‘Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.’” The message was repeated on posters, handouts, and advertisements in major newspapers.

Of course, the Vietnam War was very much not over. It would rage for another five years. Indeed, American casualties in the conflict had reached a grim benchmark in 1969 of 40,000 deaths.

But John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in the midst of the Beatles’ breakup, had launched their peace campaign months earlier, with “bed-ins” in Amsterdam and Montreal—press conferences conducted from hotel beds. And in November, Lennon and Ono had performed at a UNICEF benefit in London, joined by George Harrison, among other rockers, the first live performance by Lennon and Harrison in nearly four years. At the back of the stage hung a huge “War is Over” banner.

On December 15, Lennon and Ono flew to Toronto to launch the next phase of the campaign. Thirty roadside billboards around the city were plastered with the slogan, along with thousands of posters and handbills. That same day, President Richard Nixon appeared on television to offer “a progress report” on bringing a “just peace” to Vietnam, beginning with a stark comment on the state of negotiations: “I must report to you tonight with regret that there has been no progress whatever.”

Undeterred, Lennon and Yoko declared a couple weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, that the 1970 would be “Year 1 AP (After Peace).”

The roots of the slogan “War is Over” can be traced to songs like Phil Ochs’ “The War is Over” and The Doors’ “The Unknown Soldier,” both from 1968. But by the end of 1969, Lennon and Ono had made it their own, and Lennon’s song based on it, “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” would come out two years later.

Ono has kept the message alive, taking out full page ads in the New York Times bearing the slogan and offering free posters and related material on her Imagine Peace website. “Don’t throw a big stone,” she admonishes on the site. “It scares people and creates repercussions.” Instead, she says, become one of the Small Pebble People, who know that “small pebbles, when they’re dropped in the ocean, will immediately affect the ocean of the whole wide world.”

Don’t miss your chance to see the poster in person, on view at Mia in Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965–1975, closing January 5, 2020. This exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

From Monet to Matisse, Asian to African, ancient to contemporary, Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is a world-renowned art museum that welcomes everyone.

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