Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote this song in the basement of The Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto in 1963 after witnessing wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam. She has described the song as being "About individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all." Though not a hit for her, it was covered by British folk singer Donovan in 1965 on an EP titled The Universal Soldier, which was a success and bought attention to the song. In the US it was released as a single peaking at #53. The song became an anthem of the Vietnam Peace movement.
Sainte-Marie naively sold the publishing rights to this song for a dollar to a man she met one night at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village who wrote a contract on a napkin. She recalled to The Guardian July 31, 2009: "Ten years later I bought it back for 25,000 bucks – the good news is that I had 25,000 bucks."
Speaking to Bruce Pollock about this song, Sainte-Marie said
: "I wanted it to get people out of their classrooms and onto their feet. But certain things I have to say are pitched at too high a level to bring any lasting benefit to as many people as I would like to bring it to. If I have something of myself that gets me off, that's brought me through hard times and that refreshes and nourishes me, what good does it do if I'm not smart enough to get it to the people? And I don't mean only the people who are like me, I mean all the people. That's communication. There's no sense being a closet genius. It doesn't do me any good to keep the medicine in the bottle."
Folk singer Donovan covered this song in 1965 for his Universal Soldier EP and included it on his second album, Fairytale.
When it comes to writing a protest number like this, as opposed to lighter love songs like "Up Where We Belong
" and "Until It's Time For You to Go
," Sainte-Marie takes a scholarly approach. She told the Huffington Post
in 2011: "It's like writing a thesis for a professor, and I really want to get an 'A' and she doesn't like me very much. So I really try to make them thoughtful."
This is also the name of a 1992 action flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a fallen Vietnam soldier who is turned into a cyborg. The song, however, doesn't appear in the film.
Glen Campbell's 1965 cover was a minor hit, peaking at #45 on the Hot 100.
Jan Berry of the rock duo Jan & Dean released an answer song in 1965 titled "The Universal Coward," which criticized anti-war protesters.
Sainte-Marie is meticulous about researching the facts before they're turned into lyrics. "I've always worked very hard to make my protest songs bulletproof," she told Vogue in 2018. "When it says 'He’s 5-foot-2 and he's 6-feet-4' [in 'Universal Soldier'], I didn’t make that up - those were the height parameters of the Vietnam War."