How the War Lasts: World War II Veterans, Postwar Life and Masculinity in America
Plumb, Betsy Loren
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My dissertation explores how World War II veterans readjusted to civilian life, and the role conceptions of gender and masculinity in the postwar era played in this process. I argue that careful attention to individual experience is needed to provide a nuanced understanding of the ways men experienced and understood readjustment. This focus can also provide insight into the operations of postwar gender and masculinity, themes conventionally explored through readings of film, fiction and prescriptive literature. The dissertation offers a close examination of a range of unique documentary sources, from surveys to video oral histories. Some reveal veterans’ gendered understandings of their roles in the war and in society. Others focus on veterans’ retrospective understandings of the process of readjusting to civilian life, and how the war remained in people’s lives in ways broader, deeper, and more persistent over time than specific impacts such as the GI Bill. The chapters of the dissertation analyze very different kinds of primary sources of personal testimony, in effect layering them to expose dominant trends, less prominent but still significant commonalities, and divergences of experiences. Chapter 1 situates servicemen’s responses to The American Soldier surveys in the historical and gendered contexts of World War II in order to understand how veterans conceived of and anticipated readjustment. Chapter 2 utilizes US Army Military History Institute questionnaires to analyze veterans’ reflections on their readjustments and war memories. It also probes the significance of veterans’ choices about how and when to discuss those experiences. Similarly, Chapter 3 examines oral history interviews to probe the paths of veterans’ readjustments. It compares the nature of visual and spoken data to the handwritten data in Chapter 2. This complicates understandings of masculine norms based on the sorts of information veterans reveal in each source. Chapter 4 takes a more conventional approach and looks at underutilized document-based sources to see what they add to the discussion of gender and readjustment. Chapter 4 thereby acts as a counterpoint to the variety of firsthand accounts of the first three chapters, grounding the personal testimony in postwar society and culture. The layering and close reading of these diverse personal sources proves additionally useful in addressing the elusiveness of concepts of readjustment and masculinity. The former is often obscured by the dominant conventional focus on the particularities of World War II and the Cold War. Men themselves rarely reflect upon the latter. But they may be revealed through carefully reading the unique constellation of sources considered in this dissertation. Taken together, these chapters infuse the voices of hundreds of veterans into the discussion of readjustment and masculinity. As read and interpreted here, veterans’ voices offer a perspective on these issues that fills a gap in historiography. In this context, I argue, they breakdown stereotypes and represent the multivalence of gender. Veterans’ postwar performances of masculinity were not born solely out of depression-era or wartime masculinities, nor were they responsible for subsequent negotiations of gender, like the 1950s crisis of masculinity. However, veterans’ gendered experiences of readjustment existed alongside, in between, after and before those discourses. Without attention to this aspect of twentieth century experience, in all of its multiplicity, discussions of the effects of World War II as well as midcentury manhood are incomplete.