Samantha Power ’92, a sports reporter in college who turned her attention to human rights after graduation, won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction Monday for a work that almost did not make it into print. Her book, “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” examines the major genocides of the 20th century and the dearth of American efforts to stop them. Every publisher in New York rejected the nearly finished manuscript, she said, until she finally found one to take a chance last year.
“To me, the book is amazing because it brings in so many different perspectives,” said Power’s senior essay adviser, emeritus history professor Gaddis Smith. Smith called “A Problem from Hell” one of the most important books of our time.
“First, there’s the understanding of a trained lawyer, because human rights and genocide have legal dimensions,” he said. Then there’s superb history — archivally-based history. Then there’s her skill as an investigative reporter — and then there’s her passion.”
Power, a former editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine, traced her patience and her interest in reporting to the years she spent as a student at Yale. She spoke on campus this weekend as part of a panel on the diplomatic, military and human consequences of American power in the post-Sept. 11 world.
When she decided to become a journalist for U.S. News and World Report and The Economist in Bosnia shortly after graduating from Yale, Power witnessed atrocities that she said changed her life. At that time, she had not yet decided on a career.
Now, less than 10 years later, she is an avid human rights advocate.
“I think that American political leaders have miscalculated and done the American people a great disservice,” she said. “I hoped that book editors were making the same mistake, that they too were underestimating what American readers would want and what they would be capable of digesting.”
In addition to the Pulitzer announced Monday, “A Problem from Hell” has earned Power other numerous accolades since its publication in 2002, including this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, as well as the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize.
“Americans are strikingly unaware of the gap between the ‘never again’ after Hitler and the reality of the last 50 years,” Power said, adding that changing this attitude would require a shift in the focus of the U.S. government’s foreign policy.
Power, who calls herself “her own worst critic,” said she felt “affirmed” by the positive response the book received once she was able to get it published.
Power took her first turn at investigative journalism while working with Smith, who said that even as a student, Power demonstrated “undaunted courage” in her effort to gain access to classified materials for her senior essay.
“Everybody called her Sam in those days when she was an undergraduate, and with her startling red hair, she was really one of the best-known on campus,” Smith said.
While Power’s book discusses human rights through the stories of people who stood up to genocide, she said she did not always know that she wanted to focus on human rights issues.
“I was not a ‘human rights person’ as such at Yale by any means — it was really just seeing the carnage in Bosnia and being aghast,” Power said. “NATO planes were flying overhead and watching what was going on, but not doing anything to stop it.”
Power said that her journalism experience, combined with the interests she discovered in her time at Yale, helped her begin to focus on human rights.
After she returned to the United States, Power attended Harvard Law School and took classes related to human rights. She said she was not sure what her focus would be even at that point, since she was also interested in ethnic conflict issues.
In 1998, Power helped establish the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy — of which she was once the executive director — at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she now teaches a course on human rights and U.S. foreign policy.
Gerald Thomas, the former master of Davenport College and one of Power’s professors at Yale, said she was a “force” in class, as well as in her residential college.
“She was a colorful, outspoken — but sensibly spoken — free spirit,” Thomas said.