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14th December, 2022

War Is Over: John & Yoko's Campaign For Peace

 5 minute read 

On 15th December 1969, during the height of the counterculture movement, a campaign of peace so powerful that it still resonates to this day was launched across the globe. As residents of New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki gazed upon the posters and billboards scattered across their cities, they were greeted with a simple message – ‘War Is Over! If you want it.’ – a reminder that people have the power to end war and choose peace. By the late 1960s, anti-war campaigns and demonstrations were no longer a new phenomenon, but what was so unique about this politically charged campaign was that it didn’t come from a political group, but a legendary rock ‘n’ roll couple – John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Image: Yoko Ono

Although both John and Yoko had been privy to making statements throughout their careers, the main culmination of their activism began in early 1969 when they embarked on two week-long Bed-Ins for Peace - one at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam and the other at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. Knowing their wedding on 20th March would attract a lot of press, the couple used their honeymoon as an opportunity to partake in the non-violent, experimental protests and promote their anti-war message across global media as news of the Vietnam war flooded the headlines. As they sat in bed wearing pyjamas, John and Yoko invited the world's press into their hotel room every day between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. during their Amsterdam Bed-In and spoke of peace and harmony whilst signs above their heads read ‘Hair Peace’ and ‘Bed Peace’. In Montreal, they invited a group of friends to their room to record the anti-war song ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Released as a Plastic Ono Band single in July 1969, it was Lennon’s first solo track and peaked at number 2 on the British Singles Chart and number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Bed-In For Peace at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam, 1969

Following the success of their Bed-Ins, John and Yoko flew back to Toronto only a few months later on 15th December 1969 for the launch of the next part of their campaign – a multimedia project that would spread their anti-war message of peace to millions of people. Billboards and posters were erected in 12 major cities across the world that read ‘WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko’. That same night, scheduled to deliver to the public a progressive report on bringing ‘just peace’ to Vietnam, President Richard Nixon instead delivered an opposing statement live on global television that confirmed John and Yoko’s message was still needed more than ever: “I must report to you tonight with regret that there has been no progress whatever.”

John and Yoko continued spreading their message of peace in their art and activism in the years that followed their Bed-In protests, with some of the more notable moments being their 1969 ‘War Is Over’ poster campaign and UNICEF concert, the Plastic Ono Band’s public debut at the Live Peace In Toronto festival on 12th September 1969 and the release of John Lennon’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful song ‘Imagine’ on his album of the same name in late 1971. Recognising the accessibility and appeal that made ‘Imagine’ so popular compared to the other songs he had released up to that point, John began work on his next musical project, another that would be one of the most resonant within his legacy. His iconic Christmas protest single ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.

"Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey." – John Lennon

Plastic Ono Supergroup at a Benefit Concert for UNICEF, 1969

With the help of Klaus Voormann, session musicians and thirty children aged between four and twelve from the Harlem Community Choir, John and Yoko recorded the iconic Christmas song over just two days in October 1971. Powerful but unsentimental, the track perfectly encompassed their theme of peace, unity and optimism that suited the festive theme, whilst remaining on message of anti-war and personal accountability. Due to a dispute between John Lennon and UK music publisher Northern Songs, the single only saw release in the US on 1st December 1971 and did not initially gain much success due to its limited airtime before Christmas. When the track was issued in the UK on 24th November 1972 (the following year) it gained immediate success, peaking at number 4 on the UK Singles Chart and entering the top 10 in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Singapore.

Since it’s initial release, the single has re-entered the Billboard and UK Singles Chart numerous times, most notably on the latter immediately following John Lennon’s death on 8th December 1980 where it peaked at number 2 behind ‘Imagine’. To this day, the song remains a Christmas favourite in several countries as well as frequently being covered by other popular artists and included on new Christmas compilation albums. As its legacy burns brighter than ever still with the help of Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s vision of peace and unity continues to touch the ears, minds and hearts of people all over the world with a simple message – war is over, if we want it.

Emma Davies

Emma is a Sales and Marketing Executive at The Beatles Story with a Bachelor's in Music & Popular Music from the University of Liverpool.

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