Soldiers have been using white flags to signify capitulation for thousands of years. The ancient Roman chronicler Livy described a Carthaginian ship being decorated with “white wool and branches of olive” as a symbol of parley during the Second Punic War, and Tacitus later wrote of white flags being displayed as part of the surrender of Vitellian forces at 69 A.D.’s Second Battle of Cremona. Most historians believe blank banners first caught on because they were easy to distinguish in the heat of battle. Since white cloth was common in the ancient world, it may have also been a case of troops improvising with the materials they had on hand. The white flag later became well established in Western warfare, but evidence shows it also arose independently in China during the Eastern Han dynasty in the first three centuries A.D. The color white has long been associated with death and mourning in China, so its soldiers may have adopted white surrender flags to show their sorrow in defeat.

In more recent history, the white flag has become an internationally recognized symbol not only for surrender but also for the wish to initiate ceasefires and conduct battlefield negotiations. Medieval heralds carried white wands and standards to distinguish themselves from combatants, and Civil War soldiers waved white flags of truce before collecting their wounded. The various meanings of the flag were later codified in the Hague and Geneva Conventions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Those same treaties also forbid armies from using the white flag to fake a surrender and ambush enemy troops.