Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Basic Books"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide 
Samantha Power
New York: Basic Books, 2002

Reviewed by:
Robert Vacca
Sullivan Middle School
Franklin, Massachusettes


“Never Again” was a phrase born from the horrors of the Holocaust. The world (led by the US) used this phrase so as to never live through the horrors of the Holocaust. The world leaders have failed miserably in achieving their goal. So is the main premise of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning and masterfully researched book “A Problem From Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide.

The twentieth century was filled with genocides from around the globe. In fact, since the Holocaust, the world has seen an increase in the rise of genocides, not a decrease. In “Problem From Hell”, Power introduces the reader to the struggle of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, who spent his entire adult life to establish the term genocide and its definition. Little did Lemkin know at the time that he would set in motion a series of events that haunt us today. As Power explains the painstaking efforts Lemkin went through to get world leaders to recognize and agree upon this definition, she uses the rest of the book to explain how the world would react to various genocides (or in most cases, did not).

“Problem From Hell” does not read as a jingoistic fairy tale. In our post 9/11 world where we are bludgeoned with the red, white, and blue and damned if we aren’t patriotic attitude, “Problem From Hell” does not allow the reader to walk away unashamed. Power has written what could be considered an exposé into failed foreign policy. It is through many of these failures that the US has had to pay a steep price both financially and politically around the world.

The basic formula that Power uses is quite simple for the reader. She describes the history of the conflict (aka genocide), US intelligence on the genocide, and the response, or lack thereof. What makes the book a compelling read is the in-depth examination of US policy. Unfortunately, this policy has many similarities throughout the decades and administrations. Power has done an extraordinary job in researching this aspect as well as making it such a powerful and major force of the book. The subtlety of the book lies in the policy through the time periods. Power allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about policy decisions. 

Not only does Power write about the Armenian and Jewish genocides, but she focuses on six of the post WWII genocides: Cambodia, Iraq (the Kurds), Bosnia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Kosovo. As is the case with any story, fiction or non, heroes and antagonists emerge. 

Lemkin clearly emerges as one of the early heroes. Another hero was William Proxmire, Senator from Wisconsin. As Power eloquently explains, Proxmire made his first speech about genocide on the Senate floor on January 11, 1967. The speech was to urge the United States to ratify the Genocide Convention. At great political risk, Proxmire would continue to deliver a speech a day for nineteen years totaling 3,211 speeches. 

For as many heroes as Power introduces, she also presents arguments for non-heroes. Many presidents throughout the decades came across in this book as politicians who acted only if our national interest was at risk. The list of administration officials who also looked the other, or wrong, way is quite lengthy. 

President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher is one of several US policy officials (including Presidents) who do not come across favorably under Power’s intense and fair scrutiny. “Problem From Hell” examines the conflict which seems to hinder US foreign policy when trying to deal with global problem spots. At issue is the constant weighing of humanitarian vs. political vs. diplomatic measure. Needless to say, it is the humanitarian measures which usually take the beating.

Samantha Power not only spent the better part of ten years researching and writing this book, but she also witnessed first hand the events in Bosnia as they unfolded. Not only did she live in Bosnia and witnessed those terrible events, but she was able to bear witness to the response of the world. This is a major portion of the book. 

The response of countries (including the US) to these genocides is troubling. By examining the response, Power has allowed us to examine US foreign policy in a very intense and intimate manner. “Problem From Hell” is a very important book considering the current state of the world in a global context. 

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