With Captain America: The Winter Soldier coming out, soon I was curious about where the name “Winter Soldier” came from. It turns out it’s a lot more than just a cool-sounding name comic book writer Ed Brubaker came up with. It has its roots in the Vietnam War and even goes back to Thomas Paine.
I first became curious about the origins of the term “Winter Soldier” after hearing podcast host Jesse Thorn mention it a few times on his show Jordan, Jesse, Go! He was put off by Marvel’s use of the phrase due to its association with the Vietnam War’s Winter Soldier Hearings.
Rather than paraphrasing him, I reached out to Thorn about his feelings on the situation. Here is his reply:
My father is a disabled veteran who helped start an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In the Winter Soldier Hearings, VVAW presented testimony from American servicemembers who’d participated in the commission of war crimes. The soldiers who testified spoke about villages being destroyed, women and children being killed, and helped reveal to the public the secret war in Laos in which my father participated, and which the government was still denying had even occurred. It was an incredibly painful, incredibly important moment in the discourse around the Vietnam War. It asked Americans to face the atrocities that were being committed, by their children, in their name.
I don’t presume to know what the folks at Marvel were shooting for when they named a popcorn movie after the Winter Soldier hearings. Maybe they knew about the hearings, maybe they didn’t, maybe they just thought it sounded cool. I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t seen the movie, either. Maybe it’s not what I’m expecting. In the meantime, I just hope it drives a few people to learn a bit more about the history of the movement that spawned the hearings, and about the brave men and women who went to war, came home, and dedicated their lives to ending the conflict.
If folks want to learn more about the Winter Soldier Investigation, they can pick up Winter Soldier, a documentary about the events: http://www.wintersoldierfilm.com/. Or, honestly, just start with Wikipedia.
Thorn admits to not being familiar with the character of The Winter Soldier in Marvel comics, and I’ll admit to having not been familiar with the Winter Soldier Hearings until I heard him talk about them on his show. I did some research about the hearings and into why the Vietnam Veterans Against the War chose that name.
The term was explained by current Secretary of State John Kerry when he testified at the hearings on April 22, 1971, saying:
We call this investigation the “Winter Soldier Investigation.” The term “Winter Soldier” is a play on words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough.
We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.
The Thomas Paine reference he makes comes from the December 1776 paper The American Crisis in which Paine wrote (emphasis my own):
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
(Editor’s note: Possible spoiler alert for Captain America: The Winter Soldier below. If you don’t already know the identity of the Winter Soldier himself and you don’t want to know, you should stop here and wait until you see the film on April 4th. Don’t get upset if you read ahead and get spoiled, because Glen definitely does not care. -Victoria)
Of course Marvel’s Winter Soldier predates the upcoming movie, though many people like Thorn are probably hearing about the character for the first time in the lead up to the film. The Winter Soldier was introduced by writer Ed Brubaker during his run on Marvel’s Captain America comic.
The Winter Soldier first appeared in 2005 in Captain America #1. In the comics he is really James “Bucky” Barnes, Captain America’s former kid sidekick long thought to have died in World War II, who (until 2005) was famously one of the few people to ever stay dead in comic books.
In Captain America #8 the name is explained by S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury to Captain America himself:
Nick Fury tells Captain America:
Story went that they kept him on ice and only woke up for the big gigs. He’d be in stasis for five years… then out in the world for six months working… …and back to Rip Van Winkle-land once the bodies hit the morgue.
I also consulted superhero historian and The Mary Sue contributor Alan Kistler for his explanation for the in-world reason for the name. It’s pretty similar to what Fury says in the above image, but Kistler fills in a little backstory as well if you’re not familiar with the characters:
Bucky’s death wasn’t retconned exactly, it still happened. USSR forces found him in the water and used comic book science to revive him, but he’d been dead long enough that there was serious brain damage.They made him a cyborg and thought ok, this is a guy trained by Captain America, we can put him on missions. But since he was pretty useless otherwise, they kept putting him back into suspended animation when he wasn’t needed.
So since he was basically kept on ice for years at a time, and since the USSR often associates itself with the cold climate, he was nicknamed the Winter Soldier.
It seems that at least to the characters in the Marvel universe, the name has no association with the Winter Soldier Hearings that I could find.
To get a better understanding of why someone would use “Winter Soldier” as the name of a comic book character, I turned to the person who used “Winter Soldier” as the name of a comic book character: Ed Brubaker. I asked Brubaker why he chose the name, and if the Winter Soldier Hearings were an influence. He told me:
I came up with the name in 2004, when I was pitching for [Captain America]. I liked the sound of it for a Russian assassin from the cold war, and also liked its connections to Thomas Paine, my personal favorite founding father. The “summer soldier” quote is from The American Crisis, and I believe he meant that the summer soldiers are only patriots when it’s easy to be, but the winter soldier is a true soldier for the cause.
But yes, the first time I heard the specific name was when reading about the Vietnam War and the Winter Soldier hearings. I think that sparked something, a name that could imply Russia’s cold winters and the cold war, that was also tied to atrocities in another war, and that connected all the way back to the American Revolution. It’s a very evocative name for a Captain America villain.
It’s heartening to know that Brubaker was aware of not only the hearings, but of the Thomas Paine quote that gave them their name. A lot more thought went into the name than it simply sounding cool.
I’ve yet to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in the comics when Captain America restores The Winter Soldier’s memory, Bucky has to reckon with the guilt over all the things he was made to do as The Winter Soldier. That includes leveling a terrorist attack against Philadelphia, killing countless numbers of innocent people. It would have been easy for him to let that guilt destroy him, to be a Summer Soldier and desert, but he doesn’t.
Like the real Winter Soldiers of Vietnam, Bucky owns his past, but knows it doesn’t define him. When he regains his memory, he doesn’t only remember the awful things the Russians programmed him to do. He remembers who he is as a person, and why he was fighting alongside Captain America in the first place. He re-dedicates himself to that original fight, and eventually takes up the mantle of Captain America to defend his country.
I think the name is perfect.
My sincere thanks to Ed Brubaker and Jesse Thorn for taking the time to answer my questions, and to Alan Kistler for help with the comic book research for this article.
Brubaker is currently writing the spy thriller Velvet published through Image comics. Thorn is in the middle of his Maximum Fun podcast network’s annual MaxFunDrive, and you can read Kistler’s wonderful Agents of S.T.Y.L.E. column about the history of superhero costumes on our sister site The Mary Sue.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out in theaters April 4th.
(Images via Marvel)