Samantha Power, lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for her book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” which examines U.S. foreign policy toward genocide in the 20th century.
Power said that she “literally staggered” when she heard her book had won the award. “I had difficulty speaking, and anyone who knows me knows how unusual that is.”
She said that regarding the book’s subject, the timing of the award couldn’t be better. “There’s never been a more important time to think about America’s role in the world, about U.S. foreign policy, and about responsible citizenship.”
Personally, however, the award comes at a strange time. Only a few days before, she had learned of the death of Michael Kelly, Washington Post columnist and editor-at-large for The Atlantic Monthly, who was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq. Kelly was Power’s first editor when she was working as a journalist in Bosnia.
“It’s not inevitable that this book would break out in this way, and I think a good deal of the credit goes to Mike.”
Power, who founded the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and is now a faculty affiliate there, covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia as a reporter for US News and World Report and The Economist. In 1996 she joined the International Crisis Group as a political analyst, helping launch the organization in Bosnia.
Power’s experience in Yugoslavia and the initial reluctance of the U.S. to get involved made her wonder about our response to genocide and how it measured up to our rhetoric. She found that again and again authorities failed to act, downplaying the severity of the atrocities or pleading ignorance after it was too late. And yet within these dismal sagas, Power finds cause for hope.
In addition to documenting the moral failures of those in authority, the book celebrates the efforts of individuals who persisted in speaking out against genocide, including Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman empire, who urged the Wilson administration to help the Armenians; Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide and fought to have it declared a crime by the UN; Sen. William Proxmire, who urged the U.S. to ratify the UN’s anti-genocide convention; Peter Galbraith, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, who called for the U.S. to stop aid to Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi leader used poison gas against the Kurds in 1988.
“Congratulations to Samantha Power for winning the Pulitzer Prize,” said President Lawrence H. Summers. “‘A Problem From Hell’ exemplifies public policy research at its best – analysis of history that will make it less likely that the world will sit by for future genocides.”
“‘A Problem From Hell’ is a model of what research at the Carr Center should stand for. Samantha has brought detailed analysis, a sense of historical context, and passionate moral concern to the issue of why the U.S. so often fails to stop mass atrocity. Her award honors years of scholarship and hard work, and we are all proud to have her as a colleague,” said Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center and professor of the practice of human rights.
Harvard faculty members have now won 43 Pulitzer Prizes.