Dear John: An Unwanted Letter – 1940′s WWII Soldier

Dear John

A  “Dear John” letter is a letter that a woman writes to either her husband or her boyfriend when she wants to tell him that she wants to end their relationship. Most of the time, there is another man involved. The woman has often found another lover or wants to proceed with her life for another reason, and either doesn’t have the courage to tell the man in person or is separated by an insurmountable distance or circumstancse, and can’t tell him in person. There is nothing more heart wrenching than for a man to receive a “Dear John” letter from the woman he loves.

Nobody is quite sure of how “Dear John” letters came to be or when they actually started, but most people believe that the term started being used by Americans during World War II. While many of the American servicemen were stationed overseas for months, or even years, their wives and sweethearts were left at home to carry on. The men looked forward to their letters from home during this dangerous, war torn time, and none more than the letters from the special women in their lives. Imagine, a lonely, disheartened soldier, far away from home and receiving a long awaited letter from the one person in the world he still feels close to and has been waiting anxiously to hear from. He rushes to tear open the letter, only to be greeted by the words “Dear John (or whatever his name happened to be),” with no endearments or nicknames that would usually greet him in her letters. His heart would ache, because he knew what was ahead, since this was the way all “Dear John ” letters were written and became well known among the troops as more and more of them were received. How was a soldier who was stuck so far from home supposed to deal with a situation like this? He couldn’t, because he was in a vulnerable position and powerless to fight this more personal war with heartbreak while he was fighting  the real war. Sadly, many of our fine servicemen received this type of letter during the war.

There is some speculation over how “Dear John” letters came to get their name. Many people believe that it is because “John” was the most common man’s name in the United States during the 1940′s, so it began to be used generically in the context of that type of letter, as it is a generic term when used as “John Smith” or “John Doe.” There is also a good possibility that the sad letters were named after a popular radio soap opera named “Dear John” that aired from 1933 to 1944.

No matter how the “Dear John” letter originated or got its name, it is one of the saddest things to be passed down from the 1940′s. Nobody ever wants to receive a “Dear John” letter…then or now.

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A determined contributor to the memory and preservation of a decade.

3 Comments

  1. Elizabeth LaRue
    May 9, 2012, 10:02 pm   /  Reply

    I am having a hard time coming up with a reason for a woman to write her husband or boyfriend a Dear John letter that isn’t so incredibly selfish. I mean, another man? Selfish. Didn’t want to have to deal with the awkwardness of when he returned and do it? Selfish. Got lonely? Selfish. Didn’t really like him before he left? Selfish. Every reason seems so selfish. What good reason could there have been??

    • July 13, 2013, 12:58 pm   /  Reply

      It isn’t a nice thing to do. However, women in the UK were experiencing their own dangers. The thought that they “could be dead tomorrow” created a carpe diem attitude. This would explain British women sending a Dear John. It’s hard to understand why an American woman would do it though, that does seem selfish.

  2. May 24, 2012, 2:06 pm   /  Reply

    Such a very sad thing to send or receive–particularly in the midst of so much uncertainty of the time. I suppose however, there is never good timing for this type of communication. How things have changed…aside from the rare “in person” break-up, emails, tweets, and un-friending people on Facebook seem to be the norm. Interesting post and yes, an unfortunate legacy of the 40s.

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