Susan Carruthers on The Myths and History of the "Dear John" LetterHistorians in the News
tags: gender, military history, sexuality, womens history, Homefront
Going back roughly a century, and even more so during World War II, breakups between deployed troops and their sweethearts back home have followed enough of a pattern to earn a specialized moniker – the “Dear John” letter.
Since the phenomenon of ending a relationship by way of the postman became mainstream, communications technology has changed from letters or V-Mail postcards to records with audio messages sent during World War II, reel-to-reel tape recordings in the Vietnam War, phone calls from combat zones and later email, chat, text and video messages.
With deeper integration of women into combat roles and deployments, “Dear John” has also become “Dear Jane” for many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
Despite, or maybe because of those changes, “Dear John” correspondence has remained a mainstay.
But author Susan L. Carruthers, in her recently published book ‘Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America,’ digs deep into the archives to find and explain more about the history of wartime splits, revealing that some of these narratives are not what they seem.
Carruthers is a professor of U.S. and International History at the University of Warwick, England. She previously wrote other military culture-themed books, “The Good Occupation,” “The Media at War,” “Cold War Captives” and “Winning Hearts and Minds.”
She spoke with Military Times shortly before her book was published in the United States.
Q: You have spent a lot of your research time delving into military culture and themes, what drew you to explore “Dear John” letters and their history?
A: The biggest inspiration was the work I did on the U.S. occupation of soldiers serving in Germany and Japan after World War II. While researching that book I came across hundreds of private correspondences in archives and libraries. I wasn’t researching the nature of those intimate relationships but I was seeing how people then negotiated distance and separation. I was surprised how frank people were, their ideas about infidelity and whether a relationship would last. And how challenging it is to make a relationship survive several years of separation spanning several continents.
Q: There might have been breakup correspondence going back to the deployed Roman military or further, but how did we get the term, “Dear John?” And what fits the definition of a “Dear John?”
A: That very term was really coined during World War II. Originally it was an apologetic letter breaking off a romance or relationship with a deployed service member. In the Korean War a hit single by Gene Shepard “A Dear John Letter” that kind of adds an element that the soldier is being replaced by someone else.
Q: What were some of the research methods you used to find these letters and stories about troops being dumped while deployed?
A: I spent a lot of time listening to recorded oral histories. For four weeks I researched at the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. There was a range of stories from incredibly tragic stories, suicides, lives ended in the bleakest of circumstances to funny anecdotes from veterans recounting the breakups.