cover image Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America

Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America

Susan L. Carruthers. Cambridge Univ., $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-108-83077-5

University of Warwick historian Carruthers (The Good Occupation) delivers an eye-opening study of wartime romances and breakups. Drawing on soldiers’ oral histories, psychiatric reports, and popular culture, Carruthers discusses the origins and evolution of the “Dear John” letter in American military culture, the use of marriage to avoid the draft, and the development a “more avowedly ‘family friendly’ military” in the 1980s. Throughout, she highlights the “uneven terrain” between men and women; during WWII, civilian women were urged to “write right” because the content and frequency of their letters were considered critical to soldiers’ morale. Women also tended to be blamed for breakups and breakdowns, despite underlying factors that may have impacted their relationships, such as rushed engagements, domestic abuse, and mental health issues. Analyzing “Dear Jane” letters sent by soldiers to their girlfriends at home, Carruthers notes that a man’s receipt of a “Dear John” letter typically “generates social solicitude—along with the latitude to act out, exact revenge, or seek sexual compensation,” while “Dear Jane” recipients are not allowed the same situational ethics. Flashes of wit enliven Carruthers’s academic prose, and she makes a persuasive case that the culture of the “Dear John” letter has “helped make women, not war, the culprit for love’s breakdown under pressure.” This feminist study sheds new light on an age-old topic. (Jan.)