A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide
A character-driven study of some of the darkest moments in our national history, when America failed to prevent or stop 20th-century campaigns to exterminate Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Bosnians, and Rwandans .
Drawing upon declassified cables, private papers, exclusive interviews with Washington’s top policy-makers, and her own reporting from the modern killing fields, Samantha Power tells the story of American indifference and American courage in the face of the worst massacres of the twentieth century.
In this masterful work of social history, Power examines how, in the five decades since the Holocaust, Americans have very rarely marshaled their might to stop genocide and mass terror. Indeed, she shows how the U.S. response to recent genocides bears striking resemblance to the American response to reports of Hitler’s Final Solution. By paying particular attention to the last thirty years of world carnage, which coincided with the growth of Holocaust awareness in the United States, Power dissects how the historical memory of the Holocaust can co-exist with an American diplomatic and military policy of non-engagement that has resulted in the loss of millions of lives.
With the authority of one who has witnessed such atrocities herself, Power goes on to set a visionary and yet feasible agenda for how the United States might change course to prevent or halt future genocide. A Problem from Hell makes a riveting moral argument for why, as both great power and global citizen, we must renew our vigilance against genocide.
About this book:
In 1993, as a 23-year-old correspondent covering the wars in the Balkans, I was initially comforted by the roar of NATO planes flying overhead. President Clinton and other western leaders had sent the planes to monitor the Bosnian war, which had killed almost 200,000 civilians. But it soon became clear that NATO was unwilling to target those engaged in brutal “ethnic cleansing.” American statesmen described Bosnia as “a problem from hell,” and for three and a half years refused to invest the diplomatic and military capital needed to stop the murder of innocents.
In Rwanda, around the same time, some 800,000 Tutsi and opposition Hutu were exterminated in the swiftest killing spree of the twentieth century. Again, the United States failed to intervene. This time U.S. policy-makers avoided labeling events “genocide” and spearheaded the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda who might have stopped the massacres underway.
During the three years (1993-1996) Samantha Power spent covering the grisly events in Bosnia and Srebrenica, she became increasingly frustrated with how little the United States was willing to do to counteract the genocide occurring there. After much research, she discovered a pattern: “The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred,” she writes in this impressive book. Debunking the notion that U.S. leaders were unaware of the horrors as they were occurring against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Iraqi Kurds, Rwandan Tutsis, and Bosnians during the past century, Power discusses how much was known and when, and argues that much human suffering could have been alleviated through a greater effort by the U.S. She does not claim that the U.S. alone could have prevented such horrors, but does make a convincing case that even a modest effort would have had significant impact. Based on declassified information, private papers, and interviews with more than 300 American policymakers, Power makes it clear that a lack of political will was the most significant factor for this failure to intervene. Some courageous U.S. leaders did work to combat and call attention to ethnic cleansing as it occurred, but the vast majority of politicians and diplomats ignored the issue, as did the American public, leading Power to note that “no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.” This powerful book is a call to make such indifference a thing of the past. —Shawn Carkonen