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"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  9,194 ratings  ·  552 reviews
From the Armenian Genocide to the ethnic cleansings of Kosovo and Darfur, modern history is haunted by acts of brutal violence. Yet American leaders who vow “never again” repeatedly fail to stop genocide. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, A Problem From Hell draws upon exclusive interviews with Washington’s top policymakers, thousands ...more
Paperback, 656 pages
Published December 24th 2013 by Basic Books (first published March 15th 2002)
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Kimberly Simon I'm only on Chapter 15 but I can for sure say that this book is not a book that leaves out the lack of participation by the US and in some regards sho…moreI'm only on Chapter 15 but I can for sure say that this book is not a book that leaves out the lack of participation by the US and in some regards shows how they added to the escalation of the events. Our Native American genocidal actions are also mentioned. As an American I am never afraid to look at our mistakes and call them out for what they are so that we can improve and this book is a great attempt to ask - if we claim to stand for the things we do - how do we explain our actions when it comes to world atrocities and how and why we choose to get involved when we do. I have no problem with Powers being a stand in conscience for America - I would have greater fear if our conscience was buried and I saw no sign that we cared to hear it. Powers was given key roles in the Obama administration not because of her praise of America in this book but because of her harsh criticism and expectation to be live up to what we claim to believe. (less)

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Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Samantha Power's 'A Problem from Hell' is a broad attempt to document the major acts of genocide/human rights violations of the 20th century paired with the international community's subsequent negligence in each case. She reports on the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and especially her major areas of research- Rwanda and Serbia.

However, Powers is content to simply recount major instances of crimes against humanity that the U.S. and other major Western powers simply ignored (a worthy histori
Jun 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a difficult book to read. Both for its content and length. Most books about genocide are difficult, so this is no surprise. I have read extensively about the Armenian Genocide (Meds Yeghern), and the Shoah, or Holocaust of European Jews. These parts of the book added little to my knowledge. But, the rest of the book was very informative and distressing, relaying the stories of genocide after the world had declared "Never again"!
These were the stories of the Cambodian, Kurdish, Bosnian, R
Mar 02, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I have a lot of complaints and very few positive remarks about this book. I'll start with the little good: I enjoyed the biographical information about Raphael Lemkin. That said, there are many other more in-depth books about him out there that could tell an even fuller story.

The majority of this book, however, was a hollow argument for the superiority of liberal interventionism. The structure of each case study goes like this: a genocide started; the US MAY have borne some blame for the conditi
Apr 19, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Samantha Power has written a very well-researched book profiling cases of genocide in the 21st century (in Turkey, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, Balkans, Srebrenica, and Kosovo). Powers descibed the crusade taken on by numerous heroic individuals to avert genocide (none of whom I had previously heard of), such as Raphael Lemkin, William Proxmire, Henry Morgenthau, and James Kenneth Galbraith.

Power not only describes the recognition and responses to genocide in each of the case studies p
Apr 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Samantha Power gives a compelling account of the twentieth century history of genocide and American responses (largely non-responses) to this horrendous evil. She covers a sobering reality with a journalists skill of both careful documentation and rendering a riveting narrative.

She begins with the life of Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who became fascinated at the crimes against humanity wrought by the Turks against Armenians in World War 1. Fleeing Poland when he recognizes th
Samantha Power is an Irish born, American raised woman who served in a myriad of important posts within the US Government, including US Ambassador to the United Nations. Given her high status and delicate position, you wouldn't be blamed if you thought that she, like many others who held public office, would NOT write a book about how absolutely disgusting the US behaviour has been with regards to genocide. And yet she did. And this book is it. The size and scope of this work is huge - Armenia, ...more
Vidur Kapur
Jul 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, politics
In this forcefully argued book, Samantha Power urges the United States to place humanitarian objectives at the centre of its foreign policy agenda, and warns against narrowly defined conceptions of the US "national interest" which have often served to prevent the United States from intervening whilst genocides have taken place. It is well-argued, extremely well-documented, and Power attempts to engage with the strongest arguments against her position. One exception to this is that she does not r ...more
Aug 01, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Grinding, grueling, exhausting account of a series of genocides and the United States's response – or generally lack thereof.

Other people have criticized this book at length for failing to address the ways the United States was actively complicit in genocidal violence through support of its perpetrators. The criticism is accurate, though I think it's a product of the focus of this book very specifically on passive complicity.

I had read excerpts of this over the years, and I'm glad I finally sat
Chris Walker
Actually more like a 4.5, but I rounded up because it's a book I think that many people (but especially Americans) should read.

It's been a long time since I've read such a well constructed, well argued, and thoroughly damning analysis of US foreign policy. Samantha Power lays out an accessible, data-rich take on the history of genocide in the 20th-century, focused on American foreign policy decisions, or more frequently the lack thereof. The book is structured chronologically, beginning with the
Jul 30, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book does a good job of documenting some of the genocides in the 20th century but offers little insight into how they could have been prevented or how our current systems failed. There is larger missing problem which is never addressed in this book, which is how we can respond more quickly and positively in the future.

There is no examination of international law as it exists today, how it works and does not work. There is no mention of Russia and China's role on the security council and ho
Sugavanesh Balasubramanian
A seminal work with a lot of deep background and direct quotes.

"America's interests" - this term perversely presents itself all over the place where, "America is the vanguard of Liberty everywhere" should have been present. It is also explained well how much of this inaction had zero political consequences.

These are hard choices to make. Because there is no way to know in advance how it's going to turn out. But it doesn't mean no action is an option. - This is basically the gist of the message
Aug 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone!
Every American should read this book twice! It is exceptionally well written, well researched, and unbelievably compelling. It explains the history of America's place in international law and polics from the Armenian genocide of WWI to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. It tells the compelling personal stories of those involved on the international stage, and behind the scenes. This book is exceptionally well balanced. It neither praises nor villifies the United States. Rather, its purpose is to in ...more
Jan 18, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Samantha Power's excellent history of American responses to genocide in the 20th-century is a very enlightening and very depressing story of moral failure. It follows the story of genocide from the slaughter of Armenians in 1915 through the Jewish Holocaust 30 years later, and on to the Khmer-Rouge sponsored killing fields in Cambodia in the late '70s, the mass murder of Iraqi Kurds by Saddam's government in the late '80s, the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides in the early and mid '90s and ending wi ...more
Genocide did not even exist as a term until Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish Polish lawyer and survivor of the Holocaust, invented the term after the close of World War II. Before that time, Churchill described it as a "crime with no name". The best that was offered was "barbarities" and "vandalisms" which lacked moral authority. It wasn't until 1948 that the UN was finally able to come up with a working definition of "genocide". Genocide was not entered into force as a UN Convention until 1951 and it w ...more
Fascinating, passionate, and damning in equal measure, A Problem from Hell is an indictment against the prevailing attitudes in the USA (and much of the west) towards genocide throughout the twentieth century. From the Turkish massacres of the Armenians, through to the Serbian butchery in Kosovo, Power examines the ways in which American politicians have paid lip-service to opposing genocide, while failing to act for reasons of political expediency. As Power writes: "No US President has ever mad ...more
Dec 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019-non-fiction
A Problem from Hell is a magisterial yet approachable work on the history of the term "genocide", the creation and fight for ratification of a genocide convention at the United Nations, and the explanation and criticism of the subsequent responses to instances of genocide by the United States during the last quarter of the 20th Century. It is written by Samantha Power, a journalist at the time of writing who would go on to become President Obama's second Ambassador to the United Nations. It is a ...more
This book, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a classic and deserves its reputation. If Power's tone is just a bit too self-righteous for my tastes, her outrage at the world's anemic responses to modern genocides, and particularly those of the United States, is fully warranted by her exhaustive and heart-rending research.

Reading the book today, one necessarily muses about Power's own success in preventing contemporary genocides as U.S. ambassador to the UN, especially the war crimes and crimes against
Jul 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
so again, I'm sucked into a book that angers and saddens me. Samantha Power demonstrates that despite the lofty (but rhetorical) pledge "never again" after the Holocaust, the US gov and state leaders have never ever been willing to prevent or stop any genocide in the twentieth century. the systematic inaction and indifference of the US gov and the UN in the face of the plights of the Kurds, Cambodians, Tutsis, Kosovars and Bosnian Muslims are invariably characteristic when realpolitik remains th ...more
Tim Hoiland
Feb 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It won a Pulitzer for a reason.
Ubah Khasimuddin
Very tough book to read but one I think everyone entering the United States Foreign Service should read. It really highlights America's lack of involvement in stopping genocide, which is nothing new. But what is depressing is when America hinders other communities from helping out, like not lifting the Arms Embargo so Bosnian Muslims could defend themselves.
Each chapter is well researched but Power writes in a way that isn't so academic that the average reader is bored or confused.
She chronicl
Erik Graff
Jul 17, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: citizens of the USA
Recommended to Erik by: no one
I've been helping a friend clear out an old two-storey, five-car garage recently acquired by the condominium association she heads. Amongst various items ranging from sex toys to a truck engine were a number of books, this among them. I picked it up and read it not knowing that Samantha Power has gone on to become the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Back when she wrote it she was simply an academic with a background in journalism including work in the former Yugoslavia.

Power's experie
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Several years ago, my wife and I visited the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. When we came across the aerial photographs taken of the concentration camps, we paused and thought: We knew…

Having enjoyed reading The Education of An Idealist, I picked up this book at a used book sale. Given the content, I knew it would be an emotionally difficult book to read. As a senior majoring in history at Kent State in the 1960s, we read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (a weighty book) i
This book really consists of two parts. One is a documentation of the birth and evolution of the concept of "genocide" during the 20th century. Power's access to documentation and powerful players in international affairs gives her unique insight into the issue. The chapters on the Armenian genocide in Turkey are especially timely given the still ongoing denial of this historical atrocity.

However, this is all ultimately used in support of an insidious agenda dressed up in humanitarian language.
Jun 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Probably the best book I've ever read. ...more
I tend to get really depressed in the winter, and this year I just thought well.... why not?
Carrie Yang
Jul 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I’ve read this three times and it’s fresh and horrifying every time.
Sep 13, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Your first reaction to seeing this title is probably “Alex, why on earth would I ever read a 500+ page nonfiction book about genocide? What a downer…” And you’re right. It is a downer. Published in 2002, Samantha Power, a former journalist, human rights activist, and Harvard professor, later a chief foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama, and recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations -- this book focuses specifically on America’s responses to the genocides of the twentieth century ...more
Feb 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Daunting in its size and scope, but essential reading for understanding one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of this era.
Aug 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is very very heavy, but a good critique of the US and international involvement in humanitarian crises.
Nov 08, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008
In "Dress to Kill", Eddie Izzard says:
But there were other mass murderers that got away with it! Stalin killed many millions, died in his bed, well done there; Pol Pot killed 1.7 million Cambodians, died under house arrest at age 72, well done indeed! And the reason we let them get away with it is because they killed their own people, and we're sort of fine with that. ... Hitler killed people next door... “Oh... stupid man!” After a couple of years, we won't stand for that, will we?
I thought of
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Samantha Power is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writer, and academic. She is affiliated with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School, holding the position of Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy.

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, she moved to the United States from Ireland at the age of nine. From 1

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68 likes · 14 comments
“The United Staes had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred,” 4 likes
“People have explained U.S. failures to respond to specific genocides by claiming that the United States didn’t know what was happening, that it knew but didn’t care, or that regardless of what it knew, there was nothing useful to be done. I have found that in fact U.S. policymakers knew a great deal about the crimes being perpetrated. Some Americans cared and fought for action, making considerable personal and professional sacrifices. And the United States did have countless opportunities to mitigate and prevent slaughter. But time and again, decent men and women chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide. The crucial question is why.” 4 likes
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