A Problem from Hell

A Problem from Hell
Author Samantha Power
Country United States
Subject Genocide, U.S. foreign policy
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Basic Books
Publication date
February 20, 2002
Media type Hardcover
Pages 640
ISBN 978-0465061501
Followed by Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

"A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide is a book by Samantha Power, at that time Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, which explores America's understanding of, response to, and inaction on genocides in the 20th century from the Armenian genocide to the "ethnic cleansings" of the Kosovo War. It won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2003.

Power observes that American policymakers have been consistently reluctant to condemn mass atrocities as genocide or take responsibility for leading an international military intervention. She argues that without significant pressure from the American public, policymakers avoid the term "genocide" altogether. Instead, they appeal to the priority of national interests or argue (without merit, she contends) that a U.S. response would be futile and accelerate violence as a justification for inaction.[1]


Power begins with an outline of the international response to the Armenian Genocide (Chapter 1), and then describes Raphael Lemkin's efforts to lobby for American action against Nazi atrocities in Europe (Chapter 2). Then she describes further the difficulties of individuals' efforts to convince Americans and other members of the Allied Powers to recognize the Holocaust, which she explains were compounded by the focus on World War II and anti-Semitic indifference (Chapter 3). She continues in Chapter 4 to describe how Lemkin brought genocide to the forefront of foreign policy issues, leading to the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Chapter 5 describes Lemkin's mounting disappointments and multiplying adversaries until his death in 1959, whereupon Senator William Proxmire and others picked up the torch. She shows how Senator Proxmire and President Ronald Reagan worked to gain support for the ratification of the Genocide Convention (Chapter 7). In the rest of the book, she mainly focuses on individual genocides and the U.S. response in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo.



Martin Woollacott reviewed the book, along with the book We Did Nothing by Linda Polman, for The Guardian. He concluded: "We have yet to work out properly how the post-twin towers interventions relate to those that went before. But there is obvious irony in the fact that while previously, as these books illustrate so clearly, determination was often lacking to deal with crises that most people agreed were serious, there was no shortage of it when the Bush administration moved to deal with a crisis on which there was no global consensus at all."[2]

Stephen Holmes reviewed the book, along with War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals by David Halberstam, for the London Review of Books. Holmes wrote: "Putting an end to atrocities is a moral victory. But if the intervening force is incapable of keeping domestic support back home for the next phase, for reconstructing what it has shattered, the morality of its intervention is ephemeral at best. If political stability could be achieved by toppling a rotten dictator or if nations could be built at gunpoint, this problem would not be so pressing. Human rights cannot be reliably protected unless a locally sustained political authority is in place."[3]

Charles V. Peña, then affiliated with the Cato Institute, reviewed the book for Reason, concluding: "That is exactly the point of Power’s compelling narrative: The horror and tragedy of genocide is a moral issue that transcends national interest. But to prevent another Rwanda, the United States must also have the wisdom to avoid another Somalia."[4]

Laura Secor reviewed the book for The New York Times.[5] The book was also reviewed in Publishers Weekly.[6]



  1. Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. pp. xvii-xviii. Basic Books, 2002. ISBN 0-465-06150-8
  2. Woollacott, Martin (July 4, 2003). "Too little, too late. From Rwanda to the Balkans, the 90s was the decade of botched interventions. Martin Woollacott on two studies of the west's failure to confront genocide from Samantha Power and Linda Polman". Retrieved June 11, 2014.
  3. Holmes, Stephen (November 14, 2002). "Looking Away". Retrieved June 11, 2014.
  4. Peña, Charles V. (November 6, 2002). "Murder Most Foul: To stop genocide, the U.S. must learn to intervene more carefully." Cato Institute (originally published in Reason. Retrieved June 11, 2014.
  5. Secor, Laura (April 14, 2002). "Turning a Blind Eye". The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2014.
  6. ""A PROBLEM FROM HELL": America and the Age of Genocide". Publishers Weekly. February 25, 2002. Retrieved June 11, 2014.
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