What Was the Winter Soldier Investigation?

Mary McMahon

The Winter Soldier Investigation was a three day series of hearings held in January and February of 1971. The event's primary sponsor was an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), although other organizations participated as well. The hearings were designed to draw public attention to the events of the Vietnam War, in the hopes of exposing wartime atrocities and encouraging a reform of military policies which members of the organization claim contributed to the high rate of war crimes in the Vietnam War.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The crux of the Winter Soldier Investigation was that events like the Mai Lai massacre were more common than many people realized, and that military doctrine in fact supported the commission of such crimes. VVAW hoped to gain a great deal of media attention to educate the public about the Vietnam War, and there may also have been a desire for formal hearings into the events of the war. Critics of the Winter Soldier Organization felt that the testimony failed to prove the point, and that the qualifications of the people who testified were questionable.

In addition to soldiers, the Winter Soldier Investigation also included civilian contractors, academics, and medical support personnel. All of the people who testified were required to present their credentials, as VVAW wanted to legitimize the event as much as possible. The testimony was recorded on film and video, and numerous transcripts from the Winter Soldier Investigation are available, for those who wish to read the testimony for themselves.

Much to the chagrin of VVAW, most mainstream media outlets ignored the Winter Soldier Investigation, or wrote up brief and often critical blurbs after the fact. Although the event was reasonably well covered in the alternative media, the media exposure fell far short of the organization's goals. In 1972, however, testimony from the Winter Soldier Investigation was read into the Congressional Record, sparking calls for hearings which were used to support several legislative proposals relating to the war.

In 2008, veterans of the Iraq War sponsored a similar event, Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan, which featured testimony from a variety of people associated with the Iraq War. This event received far more mainstream media coverage than the original Winter Soldier Investigation, perhaps because of increased public awareness and interest in war crimes committed in Iraq. As was the case in 1971, opponents criticized the credentials and testimony of those who testified in an attempt to discredit them.

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Discussion Comments


The lack of success of the Winter Soldier Investigation, unfortunately, gets down to the structure of the military throughout history. There is a hierarchy of power with the chain of command going down to the foot soldiers, who are told to only obey orders - no questions, no complaints.

I think the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation wanted to show that those who testified (the soldiers on the ground and in the air)were the ones who knew exactly what was happening. If some of the policies of military warfare were changed, maybe some of the awful, inhumane events wouldn't happen.


I remember well those days of so many Americans trying to make the general public aware of what an unethical and useless war the Vietnam War was.

I think many people figured that the war was the business of the military leaders and the government - they must know what they're doing. During the Winter Soldier Investigation,it's a real shame that the testimonies about military actions, and the horrible events that were happening there were not thoroughly reported.


The winter soldier hearings were one of the peaks of the Vietnam anti war movement. Organization and action on behalf of the anti war movement had been building throughout the 60s and kind of came to a head after the events of Mai Lai.

Unfortunately the Vietnam timeline stretched on for many years beyond that. I was a big part of the anti war movement back them and I am still haunted by all that we were unable to do. A lot of good men and women died because we were not able to get our message heard more loudly.


I once saw a documentary about the winter soldier investigation. It was very well done and presented the story in a very humane but detailed light.

It is such a sad story. Those guys very so well intentioned and what they were saying need to be heard so desperately, but there effect on the war was minimal at best. It makes you wonder why we ignore the voices of the soldiers, the men and women who are on the ground doing all the worst work, feeling all the tragedy of the battle? We ignore their message in favor of the generals and politicians. And what do we end up with? More war.

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