‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide
by Samantha Power
Basic Books, 610 pp., $30.00
During the twentieth century there were not only two world wars but at least six major cases of genocide—the mass killing of Armenians by Turks in 1915, of Jews (and other groups such as the Gypsies) by Hitler, of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, of the Kurds of northern Iraq by Saddam Hussein, of the Tutsi of Rwanda by the Hutu, and of Croats, Muslims, and the Albanians of Kosovo by the Serbs. In all cases except the Kosovo Albanians, the international community and its Western leaders failed to act in time.
In 1948, halfway through this bloodiest of centuries, the United Nations General Assembly approved the text of the Genocide Convention, which outlaws the destruction by a government, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such. Some forty years later the United States ratified the convention, and in the very last years of the century, the Hague tribunal held hearings that led to the first conviction for genocide under the convention—of the Serb General Radislav Krstic for his part in the killings of Bosnians.
Successive horrors have shamed governments into making some reluctant progress, but it is still far from certain that the nations of the world will act in time and with sufficient determination when genocide once again threatens some unfamiliar region. It remains to be seen whether the moral imperative of human decency will at last become the primary and undisputed basis for action, or whether it will still prove necessary to rely on elaborate and time-consuming arguments of enlightened self-interest to move governments to international intervention. Samantha Power’s agonizingly persuasive book, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, provides an incomparable basis for considering these questions in the light of a century of atrocity.
In each of the twentieth century’s genocides a few lone voices sounded the alarm and tried to dispel the apathy and willful ignorance that immobilized governments that might have taken action. In 1915, when an estimated 800,000 Armenians were massacred by the Turks, Henry Morgenthau Sr., President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, expressed his agonized frustrations in a cable to the State Department:
It is difficult for me to restrain myself from doing something to stop this attempt to exterminate a race, but I realize that I am here as Ambassador and must abide by the prin- ciples of non-interference with the internal affairs of another country.
Wilson, as Power writes, was so determined to maintain American neutrality in the war that Washington even refused to join the Allies in denouncing Turkish “crimes against humanity and civilization,” and would not intercede with the Kaiser or send relief. While Theodore Roosevelt expressed his contempt for this position of neutrality “between despairing and hunted people…and the victorious and evil wrongdoers,” the State Department advised Secretary of State Robert Lansing that “however much we may deplore the suffering of the Armenians, we cannot take any active …