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A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide Paperback – September 18, 2007

4.1 out of 5 stars 289 customer reviews

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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 --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Power, a former journalist for U.S. News and World Report and the Economist and now the executive director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, offers an uncompromising and disturbing examination of 20th-century acts of genocide and U.S responses to them. In clean, unadorned prose, Power revisits the Turkish genocide directed at Armenians in 1915-1916, the Holocaust, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Iraqi attacks on Kurdish populations, Rwanda, and Bosnian "ethnic cleansing," and in doing so, argues that U.S. intervention has been shamefully inadequate. The emotional force of Power's argument is carried by moving, sometimes almost unbearable stories of the victims and survivors of such brutality. Her analysis of U.S. politics what she casts as the State Department's unwritten rule that nonaction is better than action with a PR backlash; the Pentagon's unwillingness to see a moral imperative; an isolationist right; a suspicious left and a population unconcerned with distant nations aims to show how ingrained inertia is, even as she argues that the U.S. must reevaluate the principles it applies to foreign policy choices. In the face of firsthand accounts of genocide, invocations of geopolitical considerations and studied and repeated refusals to accept the reality of genocidal campaigns simply fail to convince, she insists. But Power also sees signs that the fight against genocide has made progress. Prominent among those who made a difference are Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who invented the word genocide and who lobbied the U.N. to make genocide the subject of an international treaty, and Senator William Proxmire, who for 19 years spoke every day on the floor of the U.S. Senate to urge the U.S. to ratify the U.N. treaty inspired by Lemkin's work. This is a well-researched and powerful study that is both a history and a call to action. Photos.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Reissue edition (September 18, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061120146
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061120145
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (289 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #579,670 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By A Customer on February 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
While one might think that a book about genocide would be depressing, I found reading this book to have the opposite effect. It is inspiring to read the stories of people like Lemkin and Senator Proxmire who doggedly prodded the world to pay attention to this crime. It is also energizing to share the author's outrage at policymakers who trot out every excuse imaginable to avoid taking action in response to reports of genocide. I'm not sure any other book has demonstrated the pattern of response to genocide that is documented in this book. While we pay lip service (particularly since the Holocaust) to the idea that "never again" should such crimes be permitted to occur, every time we see evidence of such crimes actually occurring -- in Cambodia, in Iraq in the late 80's, in Rwanda, in Bosnia -- our leaders are afraid even to use the word genocide to describe them (such as Warren Christopher famously allowing officials to admit only that "acts" of genocide may have taken place in Rwanda). The author is not suggesting that the U.S. intervene in every civil war, but instead that we at least speak out against evil, rather than encouraging it by our silence. Not a dry, dull book at all, but exciting to read.
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Format: Paperback
Many of the negative reviews of this book have either decried it for depicting the Armenian genocide or dismissed it as liberal hackery. Both of these objections are spurious. Power has duly researched the Armenian genocide and simply documented the American and international responses to it. Many of the objections actually try to implicate the Armenians as provoking the Turkish authorities into the genocide, while others deny anything took place at all.
As for the charges of a liberal bias, absolutely none exists. And I wonder if anyone who alleges it has actually read the book. One reviewer actually calls Power a communist sympathizer for not reporting on Chinese and Russian atrocities. This absence is understandable when one looks at the fact that American legislators never missed an opportunity to wave moral superiority over Russian and Chinese communists. We almost always criticized them for that sort of the thing. Hell, one of the main reasons for the passage of the Helsinki convention was to be able to criticize the communists for failing to live up to its ratification. There is no liberal bias in this book. Power lauds Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole for making the Balkan genocides a campaign issue, even going so far as to buck the many dissenters in his party. Indeed, even Jesse Helms receives a paean for calling on the Clinton administration to apprehend war criminals. Clinton himself receives a hearty dose of criticism for his languid responses to genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans.
This book is brilliant. Anyone curious about the heroes and villains of twentieth century genocide will be satisfied after reading this.
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By A Customer on January 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
This outstanding book was difficult to put down, and even more difficult to stop thinking about. Its topic was burdensome, sad, terribly unrelenting and tragic. Samantha Power's thorough research, well documented bibliography, and clean articulate writing style made the reading of such a depressing topic interesting and compelling. This book took me about a month of careful reading to complete and I highly recommend it.
What disturbs me more than the topic of Ms. Power's book, however, is the lengthy and jumbled review below entitled "Scholarship from Hell." The reviewer is engaging in sophistry designed to discredit Ms. Power and mislead. Beginning with the phrase "Armenian Relocation" the reviewer spirals into ten, inarticulate, horribly written and confusing paragraphs whose sole intent is to misdirect and mislead. Notice the use of the phrase "Ottoman-Armenian Conflict" giving the impression of moral equivalence and balance. In paragraph three, he then attempts to discredit Ms. Power - and subsequently her book - by claiming she did not utilize "objective sources" and as having "...a lack of sufficient grounding in history to tackle a subject as sensitive and controversial as the Ottoman-Armenian conflict." There is nothing controversial or sensitive about the Armenian Genocide, and the careful construction of this babble, undermines Ms Power and devalues the awesome bulwark of research she has undertaken and produced, and is intended to mislead the reader by throwing as much junk at the wall as possible and hoping that some of it sticks. Despite the fact that Ms. Power's work is almost seven hundred pages long (with a bibliography as long as a short novel), the reviewer claims that she fails to refer to "objective scholars" in reference to the Armenian Genocide.
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Format: Paperback
"A Problem from Hell" is a straightforward condemnation of the US government for inadequately dealing with instances of twentieth century genocide in Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. It is a passionately written and often suffers from an intemperate advocacy that doesn't seriously consider any counter-argument.
The legal history of genocide is first reviewed, concentrating on the work of Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who defined the word. Implicit throughout that which follows is Lemkin's principle that the United States (or any other capable nation) has not only the right but the responsibility to interfere when genocide occurs. Power argues that in every historical instance, the US government did in fact recognize genocide (even if it didn't admit as much) and refused to react adequately, if at all. However, her reliance on international treaties and easy moral outrage makes for a rather weak case, for two reasons.
First, the strongly interventionist position is advocated without any serious consideration of the costs. Although she asserts that diplomatic and economic pressures might be effective, it is conceded that most cases would require military force and the deployment of ground troops. At the very least this would lead to American deaths, and in some cases carries that danger of a wider war. Such concerns are generally dismissed as a "realist" stance which needn't be a concern in the face of genocide, although it is acknowledged that NATO intervention in Kosovo has had "mixed" results.
The book's second and greater weakness is to place the blame for immoral inaction on top State Department officials and, ultimately, presidential administrations without addressing the public opinions by which they are constrained.
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