As coalition planes began enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya, rebels in the streets of Benghazi celebrated by cheering and extending their index and middle fingers in the air in the V symbol — a ubiquitous and unmistakable sign of . . . what? Victory? Peace? Celebration? All of the above?

The story of the V symbol spans cultures, time zones and decades. From World War II through the Arab spring of 2011, it has been used by the powerful and the powerless, by young and old, by warriors and peacemakers. Its meaning has evolved, yet it is understood around the world as a symbol of resistance. A brief history:

In a series of BBC broadcasts in 1941, Douglas Ritchie, better known as the radio figure “Colonel Britton,” urged resisters in German-occupied lands to take up a V sign as “the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories.” Soon, underground movements started chalking V’s onto Nazi tanks all over the continent.

Winston Churchill started using the newly minted “V for victory” symbol, and it became a well-known gesture on the home front, symbolizing the battle against an ultimate evil. The British propaganda campaign linked the V not only to the French word for victory, “victoire,” but also to the Dutch word for freedom, “vrijheid.”

Meanwhile, the symbol acquired new dimensions in the United States, where African Americans invented a “double V” to call for victory against the Axis powers in the war and against racism at home. Coined in a newspaper op-ed written by a black cafeteria worker in Wichita, the double V became an emblem on the top of black newspapers, a reference in popular songs and even a prominent hairstyle.

After 1945, U.S. presidents such as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower used the sign when celebrating electoral victories. Richard Nixon did the same, but his most memorable use of the gesture was on Aug. 9, 1974, when the resigning president boarded Marine One for the final time and, turning to his staff, stretched out his arms and offered the V with both hands — a symbol of victory to ease his disgrace.

By the time of Nixon’s farewell, the V sign had moved from the province of political leaders to the counterculture, with college students and protesters using it as a symbol of opposition to the Vietnam War. As the antiwar movement morphed into the more general cultural rebellion of the Woodstock era, the sign became a generational icon synonymous with peace and with struggle against the military-industrial complex.

The gesture soon reached the Middle East. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used it as early as 1969 to underscore the struggle against Israel. The Black September group’s terrorists and Lebanese crowds flashed it in the 1970s. At the end of the decade, Iranians gave the sign in their revolution against the shah.

Back in Europe, the V for victory lived on during the 1980s. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rallied her countrymen with a Churchill-esque V during the Falklands War (though she sometimes accidently posed the sign palm-inward, an unrelated and offensive English gesture akin to the middle finger). At the same time, Polish Solidarity activists flashed the V as they protested the Soviets — just as Poles had in their fight against the Nazis 40 years before. And when the Berlin Wall collapsed, commentators noted the prevalence of the symbol at East German freedom rallies.

The gesture took on further historical significance in Iraq’s ink-stained parliamentary election of 2005, the country’s first general election since the U.S.-led invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein. The symbol also reemerged in Iran, in the 2009 revolt after the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It even made its way to southern Sudan in its referendum for independence from the north early this year.

Today, demonstrators in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain flash the symbol while protesting against their governments, continuing its long history as a sign of popular resistance — a history that originated in Britain, crisscrossed the Atlantic, landed in the Middle East and Africa, and will no doubt continue to spread as long as people rally around causes and against oppression.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a student at Yale University and has contributed to the Huffington Post and National Review Online.