Letters to the editor

Bystanders to Genocide

I would like to correct four errors in Samantha Power's otherwise interesting article on the American response to Rwanda's 1994 genocide ("Bystanders to Genocide," September Atlantic).

First, the article says that the United States failed to snap satellite photos of large gatherings of Rwandan civilians or of mass graves, to intercept military communications, or to infiltrate the country. Actually, within three days of the outbreak of violence on April 6, 1994, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency obtained satellite photos, communications intercepts, and human intelligence that confirmed a widespread, centrally controlled killing campaign. I reported these facts, based on interviews with senior U.S. intelligence officials, in my recent book, The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda (Brookings, 2001).

Second, the article asserts that the failure of U.S. officials to recognize genocide during its first days "stemmed from political, moral, and imaginative weaknesses, not informational ones." The main problem initially was, in fact, informational—not too little but rather too much conflicting information. For two weeks the media, the UN, and intelligence sources reported that violence in Rwanda was waning and that it stemmed from a civil war that the Tutsi were winning—thereby undercutting any notion of a genocide against Tutsi. For two weeks the DIA warnings failed to penetrate this background noise or were explicitly rejected by U.S. officials as alarmist Tutsi propaganda. Power's article provides no evidence to contradict this finding!

Third, the article asserts that if the small contingent of troops sent to evacuate foreign nationals had instead combined with peacekeepers already on the ground, the UN commander might have been able to stop the genocide. This is demonstrably false. Even after the evacuators landed, no more than about 4,000 foreign soldiers were in Rwanda, including about 2,000 ineffective peacekeepers from Bangladesh and similar states. They were not "heavily armed," as the article asserts, but, rather, lacked heavy weapons, armored vehicles, or even jeeps to transport themselves. (They commandeered abandoned vehicles to carry out the evacuation.) Even with the reserve Belgian and U.S. forces in Kenya and Burundi, only about 5,000 foreign soldiers were in the area, and they were neither armed nor provisioned for combat. Confronting these international forces would have been approximately 100,000 Rwandan soldiers, national policemen, militiamen, and rebels, including elite units equipped with heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and surface-to-air missiles. No one can say for sure how the Rwandan forces would have reacted to an intervention, but if 5,000 lightly armed foreign soldiers had confronted 100,000 better-armed Rwandans on their home turf, the UN commander hardly would have "had the numbers on his side."

Fourth, the article implies that a quick intervention could have stopped the violence before it mushroomed into genocide. The Rwandan genocide was the fastest-moving in history. Half the Tutsi victims were killed in the first three weeks, before the end of April and before U.S. officials had even figured out what was going on. Though the United States did oppose direct intervention throughout the crisis, and intervention at any time could have saved many lives, the sad fact is that even an intervention launched as soon as the attempted genocide came to light would have been too late to "prevent" it—or even to save half the ultimate victims.

Alan J. Kuperman
Visiting Scholar
USC Center for International Studies
Venice, Calif.

In her superb piece on the Rwanda tragedy Samantha Power states that there was no legislative reaction.

I chaired the Senate's Subcommittee on Africa at that point. When the news of the slaughter in Rwanda first reached us, Senator Jim Jeffords, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, and I introduced a resolution with six Senate co-sponsors urging action by the United States and the United Nations. Interest was minimal, and the Administration opposed our resolution. Then Senator Jeffords and I got on the phone to General Dallaire, in Rwanda, and he told us that if he could get 5,000 to 8,000 soldiers quickly, he could stop the slaughter. Senator Jeffords and I had a letter produced immediately and had it hand-delivered to the White House that afternoon. When I didn't hear anything for several days, I called, trying to reach Anthony Lake. He was not there, but a member of his staff told me that they would do nothing, because there was "not a base of public support for doing anything that significant in Africa." It was a tragically anemic answer.

Paul Simon
Director, Public Policy Institute
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Ill.

At the time of the Rwandan genocide I worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations and covered the peacekeeping operation in Rwanda. Power's analysis of events is consistent with my recollections, introduces new and critical evidence, and assembles the historical pieces in a way that generates the most comprehensive and balanced picture available of U.S. policy toward the genocide.

Many of the factors that led U.S. policymakers to ignore the buildup to the genocide—the obsession with the civil war, the view that peacekeeping was effective only when there was a peace to keep—were also present in the Security Council and the Secretariat. The UN as a whole was slow to respond, and when it did, it responded sluggishly. Perhaps most mysterious is the behavior of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during the first weeks of the genocide. We now know that UNAMIR Force Commander Romeo Dallaire was telling headquarters that ethnic cleansing was gathering speed and that a modest reinforcement might protect civilians and deter the killers. Yet Boutros-Ghali did not deliver this information. Instead he stressed the civil war, failed to speak of ethnic cleansing, and observed that Dallaire was unable to provide recommendations because of the chaotic situation on the ground. Such observations completely undermined any push for intervention. Indeed, at the outset of the crisis he privately concluded against intervention. Only after the Security Council voted on April 21 to draw down the force did he provide a moral imperative for intervention.

Michael Barnett
Department of Political Science
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wis.

Samantha Power replies:

In reviewing the difference an intervention could have made, we should not treat the pace and trajectory of the Rwandan genocide as fixed, as Alan Kuperman does. Since a battered collection of 500 UN peacekeepers managed to keep 25,000 Rwandans safe, a deployment of well-armed UN reinforcements, Pentagon radio jamming, or even mere moral attention from senior Washington policymakers might have saved many more. But we will never know. What we do know is that for the first two months of the genocide the United States (and its European allies) publicly reiterated unwillingness to get involved and sent a signal to the Rwandan perpetrators that they had free rein to do as they chose. The United States used its clout on the Security Council to secure the withdrawal of most UN peacekeepers from Rwanda.

As DIA contacts indeed confirmed, U.S. officials knew that Hutu soldiers and militia had begun exterminating Rwanda's Tutsi almost immediately after the genocide began. But like all foreign crises, the Rwandan genocide produced an overload of information, and a vast array of conflicting information. A Clinton Administration determined to deter or curb killings would have deployed additional assets to sift through the available intelligence in order to piece together as complete a picture as possible. Instead, as Michael Barnett writes, Rwanda was never made a priority, determined intelligence taskings were never made, and U.S. officials continued to take shelter in the fog of plausible deniability. Senators Simon and Jeffords can be commended for urging the White House to do more. But the letters and phone calls of these concerned advocates were, sadly, not enough to convince the Clinton Administration that it had strategic, moral, or domestic political reasons to act.

Early Decision

James Fallows's "The Early-Decision Racket" (September Atlantic) rests on a dubious premise. Following the work of the economist Alan Krueger, Fallows argues that very good high school students (good SATs and grades) who choose, say, Ohio State over Harvard do not earn significantly less later in life than if they had gone to Harvard, thus suggesting that the current anxiety about elite, highly selective colleges is about something irrational and unnecessary. If we're talking about making $100,000 to $150,000, which would put the student in the top five to ten percent of the income distribution in the United States (perhaps five to ten million households!), we're probably on firm ground.

But does it matter when one begins to talk about incomes that are much greater, say $300,000 or $1 million a year (not to mention power and influence in the legal profession, the medical profession, or the highest reaches of the corporate world)? Here the sociological data strongly suggest that it does.

Making $150,000 in the upper middle class today is being a schlepper of sorts, and one certainly doesn't have to go to Harvard for such an exalted career, as the Krueger data show. But making $750,000 is another thing altogether, as is being a prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer. What might be going on here is that the upper middle class in the United States has grown so large in the past twenty years that people of middling origins can now actually compete for positions in the highest reaches of American professional and corporate life.

If you want a decent, quiet, and morally upstanding life, study hard in high school and go to Ohio State—you'll save money, avoid a lot of personal heartache, and make a very nice living. If you want to be on Harvard Law Review and thus be a serious candidate for a clerkship at the Supreme Court, or have a shot at a partnership at one of the most powerful American law firms, or a leadership role at a medical school, or get a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, or become a CEO, skip Ohio State and take that acceptance from Harvard College. Does Fallows really believe otherwise?

Steven R. Cohen
New York, N.Y.

James Fallows covers all the bases in "The Early-Decision Racket," although he doesn't give as much emphasis to the cynical undermining of the academic integrity of the high school senior year as I might have wished.

I applaud his suggestions for reform and add a suggestion of my own:

How about if we all refuse to send out transcripts until final grades are given, in May? In view of the contemptible history of the "college hustle," it may be naive to expect reform to come from higher education.

Bruce E. Buxton
Headmaster, Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, Mass.

I disagree with James Fallows's proposed solution to the early-decision problem: a moratorium led by ten of the most selective colleges.

The real, the simple, and the quick solution to the ED nightmare is to do away with the requirement that colleges wait until April 1 before notifying applicants of admission committees' decisions. Eliminate the notification date and allow all colleges to compete in an open market, and ED programs will disappear.

However, for this change to occur, the following associations would have to agree: the National Association of College Admission Counselors, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, the College Board, the American Council on Education, the National Association of School Principals, the National Student Association, and the American School Counselor Association.

On second thought, Fallows's suggestion might be easier.

Tedd D. Kelly
Falls Church, Va.

James Fallows's proposal that colleges give up early-decision acceptances is, of course, absurd. It won't happen, and it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing if it did. Fallows begins by strongly suggesting that college-admissions people do not like early decision. Later he declares, without reservation, "High school counselors, most of whom take a dim overall view of early decision ..."

As the dean of faculty and later the headmaster of a private school, I worked for fifteen years as a college-admissions adviser to young people, many of whom went on to attend prestigious colleges. I found that early acceptance took the pressure off seniors. They could enjoy their senior year instead of paying for and filling out college applications and then sweating out acceptances.

J. William Downs
Suffern, N.Y.

James Fallows replies:

I disagree with Steven Cohen mainly on one point: that the Ivy League is a good route to CEO-hood. As I wrote, there are strong "network" effects between certain elite schools and certain professions. A name-school background matters most in appointive professions, where it's hard to prove objectively who's best suited for a job. The more a line of work is exposed to market tests (profits, votes, inventions), the less college connections matter. CEOs of major corporations are distinctly non-Ivy League in their background. The CEO of the nation's largest company graduated from the University of Wisconsin; of the second largest from Pittsburgh State University; of the third from Duke; of the fourth from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in Australia. Of the ten largest U.S. companies, four have Ivy League CEOs, two from Dartmouth and two from Cornell.

Bruce Buxton's suggestion sounds good to me. And it sounds as if Tedd Kelly is going through the same process of elimination that made me suggest a moratorium as the most promising step. Since the article came out, I have heard from several college-admissions deans, essentially asking the public to keep pressure on them to make such a change.

J. William Downs's overall experience with early admission was good. The several dozen high school counselors I interviewed (many of whom I quoted) agreed that early plans could be good for those students prepared to take advantage of them. Such students must, among other things, come from families that do not need to worry about comparing financial-aid offers from a range of colleges. But virtually all the counselors I met said that the system as a whole was pernicious.

College Admission

Caitlin Flanagan ("Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," September Atlantic) has many things right, but she misses the real reason for an obsession about getting into certain elite schools. Certainly a great many underrated schools have excellent faculties (Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, the University of Washington, to name just three). And many of us who teach in college realize that the best students don't always have the "best" grades. The key point, however, is that exactly where a student goes does matter, because student bodies differ tremendously from place to place, and a student learns the most from fellow students. The differences between student bodies at, say, Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are pronounced, and the contrast is even more striking if those schools are compared with Michigan, Duke, or Princeton. The contrasts are deeply textured, only partially described in terms of class. The real variables include politics, economic background, population density, arts versus engineering, the school's location in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line, and, yes, the general intelligence level of the students. Students can tell, even "after only one visit," whether a place will work for them, and they are usually right.

John Doyle
Professor of Physics
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

The idea that students learn "the most from fellow students" is an attractive one, suggesting, as it does, that the smartest kids would do best to wander away from campus altogether. If they crammed a few copies of The Canterbury Tales, a Bunsen burner, and a decent recording of The Goldberg Variations into their backpacks, surely they would have all they needed for an education of unsurpassed excellence. In reality, of course, college students—no matter how smart—don't learn "the most" from their fellow late-adolescents, they learn "the most" from their teachers. John Doyle is right that "deeply textured" contrasts distinguish one school from another, but surely this is true of all colleges, not only the elite ones. If high school students are encouraged to find ways to evaluate colleges other than by their admissions requirements, we will see fewer teenagers cramming for standardized tests and many more engaged in activities of genuine intellectual worth.


The letter below appeared in the October issue, but we incorrectly identified its author. Apologies all around.

or the first page or so I naively assumed that B. R. Myers's seemingly petty effort to deflate the reputations of some justly celebrated prose stylists (Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and others) was actually serious ("A Reader's Manifesto," July/ August Atlantic). Once I caught on to the joke, however, that the author is satirizing a humorless, literal-minded critic with a tin ear, I chuckled my way to the end, delighted by the inspired raillery. Myers wickedly shows the pompous object of his satire to be utterly bewildered by imaginative readers who delight in the sight and sound of gorgeous sentences that, following Emily Dickinson's dictum, tell the truth but tell it slant. The satirist's hilarious fuddy-duddy emerges as the polar opposite of the sharp-eyed Carolyn See, who correctly recognizes that Annie Proulx is indeed, sentence by sentence, "the best prose stylist working in English now, bar none."

Joel Conarroe
New York, N.Y.