The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Madeleine Albright, first female secretary of state, dies at 84

Dr. Albright in 1997. (Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images)
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Madeleine K. Albright, who came to the United States as an 11-year-old political refu­gee from Czechoslovakia and decades later was an ardent and effective advocate against mass atrocities in Eastern Europe while serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the first female secretary of state, died March 23 in Washington. She was 84.

The cause was cancer, her family said in a statement.

Before Dr. Albright, the inner sanctum of U.S. foreign policymaking had been an almost exclusively male domain. In many ways, her politically fraught early life — enduring Nazi and communist repression — impelled her rise to the highest levels of international politics.

Her family, which was Jewish, narrowly avoided extermination at the hands of the Nazis. They fled to England shortly after Hitler’s tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Madeleine K. Albright, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the first female secretary of state, died March 23, her family said. She was 84. (Video: Reuters)

Madeleine Albright said she didn’t know she was Jewish until The Post told her

Several of Dr. Albright’s relatives, including three grandparents, died in the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. After the war, Dr. Albright’s father, a Czech diplomat wary of communism, feared he would be arrested following a 1948 coup by hard-line Stalinists in Prague. The family escaped once more, this time to the United States.

“I had this feeling that there but for the grace of God, we might have been dead,” Dr. Albright said much later. She said that she was drawn to public service to “repay the fact that I was a free person.”

Her ascent in the foreign policy establishment reflected the traditional roles of women in the 1950s and 1960s and her ambition, which was influenced by the nascent feminist movement that encouraged women to pursue professional careers.

After studying political science at the all-female Wellesley College, she married a wealthy newspaper heir and began a family. When her twin daughters were born prematurely and placed in incubators, Dr. Albright passed time in the hospital by teaching herself Russian.

During an interview with The Post's David Ignatius in May 2018, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright discussed Russian interference in U.S. politics. (Video: Washington Post Live)

She became an influential Georgetown salon leader and skilled fundraiser at Beauvoir, the elite private school in Washington that her daughters attended. In 1976, she earned a doctoral degree in public law and government at Columbia University, where she studied under Zbigniew Brzezinski, a fellow refugee from Eastern Europe.

When Brzezinski was named national security adviser following the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter as president, he brought Dr. Albright into the White House as his congressional liaison. She was one of just two women on Brzezinski’s staff and occupied a windowless cubbyhole in the West Wing, but Dr. Albright relished her proximity to power.

The biggest catalyst to Dr. Albright’s career may have occurred in 1982 when her husband left her for another woman. Although she was initially devastated, the divorce settlement made her a millionaire.

She began raising money for Democratic presidential hopefuls, which led to jobs as foreign policy adviser to Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.), the first female major-party nominee on a presidential ticket, and to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) during his doomed 1988 presidential run.

While working for Dukakis, Dr. Albright met Bill Clinton, a onetime Rhodes scholar who was then the governor of Arkansas and wanted to build a national reputation for himself. Dr. Albright wrote a letter of recommendation that helped Clinton gain membership to the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious New York think tank. When Clinton was elected president in 1992, Dr. Albright ran his National Security Council transition team and was named ambassador to the United Nations.

'Assertive multilateralism'

Like many immigrants from the World War II generation, Dr. Albright saw her adopted homeland as a moral beacon and an “indispensable nation” for resolving international conflicts. As Clinton’s top U.N. envoy, she argued for vigorous U.S. engagement abroad at a time when many Americans saw the end of the Cold War as a signal for their government to focus on domestic problems.

Rather than relying on the United States to be a global Lone Ranger, Dr. Albright argued for its involvement in what she called “assertive multilateralism.” At the United Nations and the State Department, she lobbied — not always successfully — for muscular multinational responses to thwart a new generation of tyrants, from Haiti to Rwanda to the Balkans.

“When it came to the need to protect people from dictators and genocidal wars, Albright was the conscience of the Clinton administration,” said Ivo Daalder, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton years.

Comfortable in front of TV cameras, Dr. Albright emerged as the administration’s most forceful foreign policy advocate and a stark contrast to Clinton’s first secretary of state, the cautious and wooden Warren Christopher, and the media-shy national security adviser Anthony Lake.

Dr. Albright won legions of admirers for her tough talk. Shortly before a U.S.-led multinational force restored Haiti’s ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994, the U.N. ambassador offered the country’s military rulers a choice: “You can leave soon and voluntarily, or you can leave soon and involuntarily.”

Her most famous quip followed the Cuban military’s 1996 shoot-down of two unarmed civilian aircraft, killing the four Cuban exiles onboard. After one of the pilots boasted of firing his missile into the plane’s cojones — Spanish slang for testicles — Dr. Albright told the U.N. Security Council: “Frankly, this is not cojones; this is cowardice.”

Dr. Albright also drew criticism for carrying out “sound-bite diplomacy.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 1999, the former Georgetown University foreign service school dean Peter F. Krogh called it “a foreign policy of sermons and sanctimony.”

Dr. Albright tried to back up her strong words, especially following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

In the newly created state of Bosnia, scenes of ultranationalist Serbian paramilitaries forcing Bosnian Muslims aboard railroad cars reminded Dr. Albright of the Holocaust. Initial paralysis by the international community and by Clinton, who feared getting stuck in a Vietnam-like quagmire, infuriated Dr. Albright. She pushed for military action.

“She could not stand doing nothing on Bosnia,” Toby Gati, who was the intelligence chief at the State Department during that time, told former Washington Post journalist Michael Dobbs for his 1999 biography “Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth Century Odyssey.” “She was like a horse chomping at the bit all the time. She kept on saying, ‘We have to do more.’ ”

At the United Nations, Dr. Albright lobbied for airstrikes against Serbian positions. At one point she stunned Colin Powell, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and reluctant to intervene, by asking: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Recalling the scene in his memoirs, Powell wrote: “I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board.” He noted that European allies, with troops on the ground, opposed bombing, adding that such action required a “particular political objective.”

After Serb forces overran the U.N. safe haven of Srebrenica and massacred thousands of civilians in June and July 1995, White House opinion finally swung to Dr. Albright’s position. The first airstrikes, carried out by coalition forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were launched in September 1995 and helped drive the Bosnian Serbs to the bargaining table.

Two months later, the Dayton peace accords, brokered by U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, ended the war in which an estimated 100,000 people died.

Secretary of state

Dr. Albright’s unwavering stance on Bosnia as well as a strong recommendation from first lady Hillary Clinton, her good friend, helped persuade President Clinton to promote her to secretary of state after he won a second term in 1996 with enthusiastic support from female voters.

She was confirmed as the 64th secretary of state — the position is fourth in the line of presidential succession — by a 99-to-0 vote in the U.S. Senate.

As the top U.S. diplomat, she quickly became the administration’s chief hawk on Kosovo, where Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic had ordered a bloody crackdown in the largely ethnic Albanian-inhabited province.

Dr. Albright, who had lived in Belgrade when her father was the Czech ambassador, had for years lambasted Milosevic for human rights abuses, prompting him at one face-to-face encounter to challenge her knowledge of his country.

“Madame Secretary, you are not well-informed,” Milosevic told her in an exchange recounted in journalist Ann Blackman’s 1998 Albright biography “Seasons of Her Life.”

Dr. Albright shot back: “Don’t tell me I’m uninformed — I lived here.”

In what Time magazine dubbed “Madeleine’s War,” NATO airstrikes in 1999 eventually led to the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and the return of thousands of Albanian refugees. By standing up to Milosevic, Daalder said, “Albright got Kosovo right.” Milosevic was charged by an international tribunal with war crimes but died in 2006 before the trial ended.

Dr. Albright saw a stable Europe as central to U.S. interests and was convinced that Warsaw Pact countries should be aligned with the West to cement democratic gains achieved since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After six years of transatlantic diplomacy, Dr. Albright helped persuade Russia and a skeptical U.S. Senate to allow Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO. It may have been her greatest diplomatic achievement.

“To quote an old Central European expression: ‘Hallelujah!’ ” Dr. Albright said at the signing ceremony.

Her dedication to the region made her a star in Eastern Europe, prompting Czech President Vaclav Havel, her close friend, to suggest that Dr. Albright succeed him. She also reveled in her celebrity at home, where she threw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game and barnstormed the nation to promote U.S. policies as well as greater participation of women in government.

A hidden background

Marie Jana Korbelova was born in Prague on May 15, 1937. Her mother later re-christened her Madeleine, which evolved from her childhood nickname Madlenka. With Jews facing discrimination and death all across Europe, the family converted to Catholicism while living in London during World War II.

When The Post broke the story in 1997, Dr. Albright said that her parents had never told her about her Jewish background. But critics wondered how an avid scholar of Czech history could be ignorant of her family heritage for so long.

“We didn’t discuss it,” she told The Post. “My parents were fabulous people who did everything they could for their children. … I can’t question their motivation.”

She adored and emulated her father, Josef Korbel, who after moving the family to Colorado taught international relations at the University of Denver — where he mentored future secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

As a teenager, Dr. Albright won a prize for naming all the U.N. members states in alphabetical order. Days after graduating in 1959 from Wellesley, she married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, a news­paper scion she’d met while working as an intern at the Denver Post.

After more than 20 years of marriage, he announced one day that he was leaving her for another woman. The terms of the divorce left her the house in Georgetown and a 370-acre farm near Washington Dulles International Airport and a stock portfolio worth $3.5 million by the time she joined the Clinton administration, The Post reported.

Dr. Albright, then in her mid-40s, said it was a frightening moment to be almost totally independent. “I had never lived by myself,” she later told The Post. After college, “I stayed in the dormitory with my roommate for the [days] between graduation and getting married.”

She quickly resumed a career, teaching at Georgetown University and honing her speaking skills on a PBS foreign affairs talk show. She turned her home into a Washington foreign policy salon.

Though barely 5 feet tall, her ability to command attention in the classroom and the TV studio boosted her confidence and stature. While she was advising Ferraro in 1984, the vice-presidential candidate said that the intense campaign atmosphere helped Dr. Albright forge her own identity. “Nobody looked at her as the wife or divorced wife of somebody, but as Madeleine Albright the expert,” Ferraro told The Post in 1999.

A bureaucratic warrior

As secretary of state, Dr. Albright was known as a coldblooded bureaucratic warrior. Despite resistance from nearly every member state, she led a successful U.S. effort in 1996 to deny a second term to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was viewed in Washington as ineffective.

Inside the State Department, Dr. Albright never fully trusted many of her male deputies, who had wanted the top job, and was convinced they were maligning her behind her back, Blackman said in an interview. Privately, Dr. Albright called them “The White Boys.”

When required, she could turn on the charm. This was used effectively when dealing with Sen. Jesse Helms, the ultraconservative North Carolina Republican who was one of Clinton’s staunchest foes and a fierce U.N. critic.

While secretary of state, Dr. Albright toured Helms’s home state, spoke at his alma mater and walked hand-in-hand with Helms to win his support for ratification of a treaty to ban the use of chemical weapons, another of the administration’s milestones.

Still, her initiatives were often blocked by the risk-averse White House, where Clinton’s national security advisers often wielded more influence than Dr. Albright.

Following the disastrous U.S. effort to stabilize Somalia in 1993, her pleas the next year to intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocidal mass slaughter of ethnic Tutsis fell on deaf ears among White House staff members and the American public.

“Goddammit, we have to do something,” she screamed at her bosses in one telephone call. Instead, Dr. Albright was ordered to veto a U.N. plan to send a multinational force into the Rwandan capital of Kigali. She remained haunted by Rwanda and recalled flying over the killing fields and seeing hundreds of skeletons, including one she later said “was only two feet long, about the size of my little grandson.”

Amid the ideological confusion following the end of the Cold War, some critics came to view Dr. Albright as more of a goalkeeper than grand strategist, but she said the claim didn’t bother her.

Others insisted that she focused too much on Europe to the detriment of Asia, where the Treasury Department took the lead in addressing the region’s late-1990s economic crisis and the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse.

After leaving government in 2001, Dr. Albright became chairwoman of the Albright Stone­bridge Group, a business and risk-management consulting firm. She returned to teaching at Georgetown and wrote several books, including “Prague Winter,” a memoir of her dramatic childhood. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest honor for civilians.

Survivors include three daughters, Anne, Alice and Katie; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Dr. Albright delighted in telling the story of how one of her granddaughters was less than impressed with her illustrious career.

Noting that after Dr. Albright, two of the next three secretaries of state were women, the 7-year-old commented: “What’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie having been secretary of state? Only girls are secretary of state.”

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