Oh gosh, don’t feel bad, there are plenty of Americans who have never even heard of this.
The Winter Soldier Investigation was a 1971 veteran-organized media event intended to draw attention to the war crimes that had taken place in Vietnam. Directly inspired by the exposure of the My Lai Massacre (the mass murder of over five hundred unarmed civilians by American troops) in 1969, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) brought together discharged servicemen from every branch of the military to discuss the atrocities they had seen and committed during their time in the war. They hoped bring these tragedies before the public eye, and to prove that American military policies led directly to the death and torment of civilians. Eventually a transcript from this conference made its way before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Fullbright Hearings.
When Ed Brubaker, the author who wrote the original Winter Soldier arc, chose the name, he wanted something that would call up both cold Siberian winters and the atrocities of war. This fit the bill.
But the term itself, the idea of “winter soldiers”, was coined by VVAW as a response to the writings of Thomas Paine, who described the men who deserted at Valley Forge during the American Revolution:
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.
A winter soldier is someone who will warm their hands over a meager fire and weather the cold. Someone who refuses to abandon their country and its potential, no matter what the personal cost.
So how’s that for a weird little twist? According to Thomas Paine—activist, political philosopher, and revolutionary—the real winter soldier is Captain America.