How World War II’s ‘Dear John’ Letters Changed American Society

Dear John was a term that stands for “a breaking up note” sent from a woman to an unidentified man. It first appeared in a national newspaper on October 23, 1943. Milton Bracker was a veteran correspondent who had been stationed in North Africa and wired the story to New York. Times magazine. “Separation,” Bracker observed, was the “one most dominant war factor in the lives of most people these days.” Regrettably, however, absence wasn’t making all hearts grow fonder. Wherever “dour dogfaces”—soldiers from “Maine, Carolina, Utah and Texas”—found themselves on the frontlines, “Dear John clubs” were springing up.
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These, the reporter explained, were mutual consolation societies formed by officers and enlisted men who’d received letters from home “running something like this: ‘Dear John: I don’t know quite how to begin but I just want to say that Joe Doakes came to town on furlough the other night and he looked very handsome in his uniform, so when he asked me for a date…’”

Yank, the Army weekly, had reported on “Brush-Off Clubs” months earlier, offering illustrative examples of these letters without yet calling them Dear Johns. Over the course of the conflict, many similar stories appeared in both civilian and military media. The reportage featured a lot of excerpts from these archetypal samples. According to journalists, women composed brush-off notes in a variety of registers, ranging from the naively clueless to the calculatedly cruel, but invariably beholden to cliché.

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Howard Whitman explained Dear John’s meaning to his readers in the Chicago Daily Tribune in May 1944, he had his imaginary female writer string hackneyed phrases together: “Dear John: This is very hard to tell you, but I know you’ll understand. I hope we’ll always remain friends, but it’s only fair to tell you that I’ve become engaged to somebody else.” Formulaic words, Whitman implied, would do little to soften the blow, while trite sentiments might even exacerbate the pain caused by a revelation that was both belated and perfunctory.

War correspondents who brought these letters to civilians’ attention were keen to preach a particular sermon about mail and morale, love and loyalty. The order of the day was hyperbole. “It is doubtful if the Nazis will ever hurt them as much,” Whitman opined, referring to the emotional wounds inflicted by women who sent soldiers “Dear John” letters. Given the facts, it was quite plausible. A letter to a lover or husband ending a romance caused more damage than the death, loss of sight and hearing, and even death. Whitman was not the only one who insisted.

Michael Ochs Archives—Getty ImagesAn image of soldiers off duty enjoying the bonfire in Fayetteville North Carolina 1942.

To these commentators, it was precisely the circumstance of being at war that made rejection more tormenting—and more intolerable—than in civilian life. Since many contemporaries agreed that a broken heart was the most catastrophic injury a soldier might incur, “jilted GIs” garnered widespread sympathy, including from their COs. While the brass still tended to regard “nervousness” in combat as an unacceptable manifestation of weakness, officers often extended a pass to servicemen who responded to romantic loss with tears, depression, rage or violence.

Among other things, a “Dear John” issued servicemen a rare license to emote. Civilians accepted the notion that stricken soldiers could act out and were justified by doing so. Here’s Mary Haworth, an advice columnist, indignantly addressing her readership in the Washington PosT in July 1944: “a bolt of bad news that strikes directly at their male ego—telling that some other man has scored with the little woman in their absence—can lay them out flat, figuratively speaking; and make them a fit candidate for hospitalization. They are not being judged on their menhood. It illustrates, rather, their civilized need of special spiritual nurture while breasting the demoniac fury of modern warfare.”

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Like Haworth, many female opinion leaders condoned men’s emotional disintegration under the duress of a “Dear John.” Eager to shore up vulnerable male egos, they joined the chorus condemning women who severed intimate ties with servicemen as traitors—worse than Axis enemies, even, because American women were (or ShouldTo be) on the other side.

So in World War II’s gendered division of labor, it fell to women not only to wait but to Send an email. Men battling Axis forces were fighting “for home”—as innumerable propaganda posters, movies and other patriotic prompts reminded them. Although women may be seen as the symbol of the home front they were not passive or mute. The wartime state, along with legions of self-appointed adjutants, regularly reminded women that to “keep the home fires burning,” they had to stoke the coals of romance with regular loving letters to men in uniform.

'Don't Just Kiss 'Em Goodbye...'
Hulton Archive—Getty ImagesA poster featuring a woman as she kisses an American airman accompanied by the text ‘Don’t Just Kiss ’em Goodbye; Work to bring ’em back,’ circa early- to mid-1940s.

Many soldiers also endowed their mail with magic properties. Faced with death or serious injuries, soldiers often sacrificed items they believed could protect them. Some took this faith in mail’s protective power so literally that they pocketed letters next to their hearts, as though notepaper—or the loving sentiments committed to the page—could deflect bullets. Some soldiers were afraid that the magic might work in reverse. For if loving letters could ward off danger, mightn’t unloving words invite it?

The Pulitzer-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass recalled harboring these suspicions as a Navy typist during World War II: “Mail call was the best, or worst, moment of each day; you approached carefully any man whose name had not been called. Only a ‘Dear John’ letter was worse—we felt, mawkishly, no doubt, that with no one to come back to, a man was less likely to come back.”

Similarly, Vietnam veteran Michael McQuiston remembers his platoon sergeant’s reluctance to let him go out into the field after he’d received a Dear John: “Their rule was that they didn’t do that. It was bad luck.” (McQuiston pestered his way into a mission only to sustain an injury, thereby confirming the wisdom of superstitious belief.)

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From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, soldiers have been haunted by—and taunted by—the specter of female infidelity, associating disloyalty with fatality. Penelope, whose constancy Odysseus put to the test by disguising himself as a beggar when he returned home after long years away at war, ultimately demonstrated her steadfastness to her husband’s satisfaction. By the time of his return, she had already fought off more than one hundred suitors with her cunningly unraveled and rewoven yarn—except in an alternative version of the legend which has Penelope sleeping with them all, as historian and archaeologist Robert E. Bell noted in his book Women of Classical Mythology.

That this revisionist myth-maker preferred not to copy Homer’s portrait of Penelope as a model of connubial chasteness hints at a larger phenomenon. Soldiers’ and veterans’ recollections have tended to accentuate the unfaithful few, not the devotedly loyal many. “Dear John” stories exemplify this trend, commonly treating as “universal” an experience that, though not unusual, was far from inevitable.

Cambridge University Press



Source: Dear John: Loyalty and Love in Wartime America Susan L. Carruthers. Copyright © 2022. Cambridge University Press.



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