Susan L. Carruthers is the author of the new book Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America. Her other books include The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace. She is Professor of U.S. and International History at the University of Warwick.
Q: What inspired you to write this book about "Dear John" breakup letters sent to military service members?
A: Two things. First, I became intrigued by wartime letter-writing as I researched my previous book, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (Harvard, 2016). I read thousands of servicemen's and women's letters in order to understand the experiences of Americans who served in the armies of occupation in Europe and Asia after World War II.
Doing so, I was struck not only by the challenges of sustaining intimacy during protracted separations-- years, in some cases-- but also how candid many couples were in acknowledging fears of infidelity and betrayal. This despite the fact that censors were scrutinizing their letters.
Reading these letters made me want to explore the larger dynamics of wartime relationships and the various technologies that have helped sustain them -- or end them, in the case of Dear John letters.
Second, having spent my whole career writing about war, I was struck by how ubiquitous references to Dear Johns are in American wartime culture-- in memoirs, novels, movies, TV drama, music. Yet no one had written anything about these letters, aside from references to a few memorable (possibly apocryphal) examples that pop up time and again in the literature on WWII and Vietnam. So, I decided to fill that gap.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I learnt many things that surprised me-- not least the fact that bona fide Dear John letters are extremely hard to track down! On reflection, this maybe shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. After all, who clings onto the letter in which their beloved tells them things are over, and by the way, she (or he) has found someone new?
So, I couldn't research this book by going to various archives and reading hundreds of break-up notes, lovingly preserved by their recipients and later bequeathed to historical collections.
One of the big epiphanies I had in researching the book was the realization that Dear John letters are best understood not as a female epistolary genre but as a male oral tradition.
In other words, most of what we know about women's break-up notes comes from stories told by men -- soldiers and veterans, and others ventriloquizing their viewpoints. And men have had a lot to say about the letters women sent to end romantic relationships and the consequences of those long-range break-ups.
The single most important site for my research was the Veterans History Project, located in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. I listened to hundreds of hours of oral history testimony in which male veterans -- and a much smaller number of women -- talk about their experience of getting "Dear Johned" or dealing with a buddy who'd been dumped while at war.
I also read a lot of different kinds of material, from advice columns in women's magazines to psychiatric literature, in which wartime break-ups are analyzed and/or warned against. And I read novels, watched movies, and listened to songs-- anything that featured a Dear John motif.
Other surprises included how much variety there was in how Dear John stories were told, particularly how often heartbreak served as a vehicle for humor. I hadn't expected to find myself laughing out loud at what I was listening to in the Library of Congress, but some veteran raconteurs delivered stories with perfect comic timing and unexpected punchlines that were extremely funny. Overall, I discovered that a Dear John could be -- and could license -- many things.
Q: You write, "The Dear John letter has helped make women, not war, the culprit for love's breakdown under pressure." Can you say more about that, and also about the impact of the Dear John letter on American culture?
A: In the book, I try to understand why -- and with what consequences -- Dear John letters have loomed so large in the stories that are told about men and women in wartime.
For individual servicemen and veterans, sharing experiences of heartbreak and loss can be cathartic. But, collectively, the circulation of Dear John stories has also often served to demonize the women who write and send these letters.
In every successive war that my book explores -- from WWII to Vietnam and the so-called "forever wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan -- women have been insistently warned, both by military authorities and civilian experts, not to end a romantic relationship with a deployed serviceman. Not only is severing an intimate connection damaging to his morale and a threat to his unit's operational efficiency, it's also "cruel" and "cowardly." So, at any rate, the received wisdom goes.
In Dear John, I challenge these persistent ideas about women who terminate romantic relationships by foregrounding the many obstacles to sustaining intimacy in wartime -- from unreliable lines of communication to separations of sometimes unknown duration, and the psychological toll that war exerts both on those in uniform and their loved ones.
For the military as an institution, it's easier to blame female "fickleness" for the breakdown of relationships rather than acknowledging candidly the emotional stress that being at war places on all in its orbit.
With regard to popular culture, as is true of the stories that veterans tell about break-up letters, fictional Dear Johns have been played both for laughs and tears. For instance, M*A*S*H's Radar receives a Dear John recorded onto vinyl -- which, of course, is heard over the camp PA to comic effect.
Other Dear Johns in pop culture also draw attention to changing modes of communication through which service personnel and loved ones stay in touch -- or split up. Anyone who read or saw the movie Jarhead will likely remember the scene in which the grunts watch a VHS video that turns out to be a pornographic Dear John.
If I were to venture a generalization, I'd say that the more apologetic Dear John -- exemplified by the Jean Shepard/Ferlin Husky country music hit of 1953 ("How I hate to write...") -- gave way to darker and more misogynistic depictions of Dear Johns in the Vietnam era.
It's also worth emphasizing that the "Dear Jane" has never caught on in pop culture in the same way -- another manifestation of how men's emotional needs have routinely been prioritized over women's.
In every war I discuss, women have tried to point out this double standard: that men can and do abandon their female partners while away at war-- with or without a letter announcing this severance-- but are given a pass, whereas faithless women have been pilloried and reviled.
But despite women's efforts to draw attention to these dynamics, most popular cultural representations of wartime love gone wrong depict men as the victims of women's malice or selfishness.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope that readers will come away from the book with a greater appreciation of both how much work has gone into attempts to discipline emotional life in wartime, and of how hard it is, as I said in my previous response, to sustain intimacy in wartime.
Arguably, it's even harder in the digital age to keep romantic relationships healthily alive, as round-the-clock connectivity makes "compartmentalization" much harder than it was hitherto when letter-writing was the only way for couples to keep in touch. For those in war zones, trying to be a devoted partner and a focused soldier simultaneously can be extremely challenging, if not totally impossible.
The double-edged character of new technology -- with deployed service personnel now enjoying access to the internet, cellphones, and social media -- is something repeated to me many times over by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've just finished a shorter piece about relationships between American women (mostly Italian Americans) and Italian prisoners in America during World War II, and these women's attempts to gain War Department permission to marry. Invariably denied.
At the US National Archives, I stumbled on hundreds of letters sent to the Provost Marshal General's office as I was researching Dear John, but since these letters are emphatically not Dear Johns, almost their antithesis, I had to find another outlet for this fascinating material.
My next book, though, will be about clothing in the aftermath of WWII and the many functions apparel played in refashioning the postwar world.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Dear John uses the story of a single WWII romance to illustrate various points about wartime relationships, letter-writing, and the consequences of break-ups.
This draws on one of the few female-authored notes that we know -- with absolute certainty -- to be authentic: a V-mail from a young woman called Anne Gudis to her boyfriend in Britain, Sam Kramer (a GI she'd never met in person), telling him to "Go to hell!"
This irate zinger broke every rule in the book. And because Sam sent it to Yank, the army weekly magazine, which then published the note in facsimile form, many people had things to say both to and about Anne, whose address was clearly legible. It's quite an idiosyncratic story.
But one reason why it resonated so deeply with me was that Anne's hometown was Newark, New Jersey. For a decade, that was my adoptive hometown too. So, I was drawn not only to Anne's feisty character but to an urban location we both shared.
I taught History at Rutgers in Newark for many years, and over the course of that time, quite a few of my students were veterans. Some generously shared their own experiences of deployment and Dear Johns. So, I'm grateful to all of them, as well as the many individuals personally unknown to me whose stories I uncovered in the archives.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb