Madeleine Albright, first woman to serve as US secretary of state, dies at 84

Ms Albright was also the first woman to serve as the US ambassador to the United Nations

Andrew Feinberg
Washington, DC
Wednesday 23 March 2022 21:55 GMT
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Madeleine Albright, the veteran diplomat who came to the United States as a child refugee, studied foreign languages and policy while raising a family on the way to becoming the first woman to lead the US Department of State, died Wednesday at age 84.

In a statement announcing her death, the Albright family said they were “heartbroken” to announce that she had passed away from cancer while “surrounded by family and friends”.

“We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend,” they said.

Born Marie Jana Korbelová (later anglicised to Korbel) in 1937, Ms Albright spent the first two years of her childhood in Europe. Her father, a Czech diplomat, served as a press attache at the Czech embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, before the rise of Hitler forced her family into exile in 1939.

After spending the Second World War in London, her family returned to Czechoslovakia before her father sent her abroad – first to Switzerland, then London, then finally to the US with the rest of her family in 1948, arriving as refugees fleeing the Soviet-backed communist Czech government.

She graduated from secondary school in Denver in 1955, attended Wellesley College on a full scholarship, and in 1959 married journalist Joseph Medill Patterson Albright shortly after graduation.

While raising twin girls, Ms Albright began studying Russian, and in 1962 began studying international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, eventually earning a master’s degree, and later a PhD from Columbia University.

After entering government service as a Senate legislative aide, she was recruited to the National Security Council in 1978 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.

US ambassador Madeleine Albright speaks to the Security Council on 7 May 1994
US ambassador Madeleine Albright speaks to the Security Council on 7 May 1994 (AP)

Ms Albright returned to academia after Mr Carter’s 1980 election loss to Ronald Reagan, and would spend the next 12 years out of government. But when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he nominated her to lead the US mission to the UN, making her the first woman ever to do so.

As the US Ambassador to the UN, she drew some criticism for the country’s slow response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but endeared herself to Mr Clinton after describing Cuba’s 1996 shutdown of two planes flown by an exile group as “not cojones” but “cowardice”.

And when Mr Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, left his post at the start of Mr Clinton’s second term, it was Ms Albright who was nominated as his replacement.

Ms Albright’s term as secretary of state saw her become one of the highest-level US officials to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il while on an official visit, during which she reportedly gifted him with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.

Madeleine Albright speaks before an interview in Washington on 28 November 2016
Madeleine Albright speaks before an interview in Washington on 28 November 2016 (Reuters)

Though she served Democrat presidents exclusively, Ms Albright drew praise from both sides of the US political divide.

In a statement, President Joe Biden called her “a force” and said her hands “were the hands that turned the tide of history”.

“She was an immigrant fleeing persecution. A refugee in need of safe haven. And like so many before her—and after—she was proudly American. To make this country that she loved even better—she defied convention and broke barriers again and again,” he said.

Mr Biden added that America “had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights” than Ms Albright, because she “knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy”.

“Working with Secretary Albright during the 1990s was among the highlights of my career in the United States Senate during my tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee. As the world redefined itself in the wake of the Cold War, we were partners and friends working to welcome newly liberated democracies into NATO and confront the horrors of genocide in the Balkans,” he said. “When I think of Madeleine, I will always remember her fervent faith that ‘America is the indispensable nation’”.

The US president Ms Albright served for eight years, Bill Clinton, said he and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were “profoundly saddened” by her passing and called her “one of the finest Secretaries of State, an outstanding UN Ambassador, a brilliant professor, and an extraordinary human being” who was “perfectly suited” for the time in which she served.

“ As a child in war-torn Europe, Madeleine and her family were twice forced to flee their home. When the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of global interdependence, she became America's voice at the UN, then took the helm at the State Department, where she was a passionate force for freedom, democracy, and human rights,” he said.

“Because she knew firsthand that America's policy decisions had the power to make a difference in people's lives around the world, she saw her jobs as both an obligation and an opportunity And she made the most of them in advancing peace, security, and shared prosperity: ending ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo; supporting the expansion of NATO into Central Europe; fighting the proliferation of nuclear weapons; broadening U.S. efforts to strengthen civil society, reduce poverty, and relieve debt in developing countries; elevating concerns about climate change and environmental degradation on the world stage; and much more”.

Mr Clinton added that Ms Albright “never lost her great sense of humour” and that during their last conversation two weeks ago, she was “determined to go out with her boots on” by supporting Ukraine against Russia’s unprovoked invasion.

In a statement, former president George W Bush said he and former First Lady Laura Bush were “heartbroken” by the news of Ms Albright’s death, and remarked that she had “lived out the American dream and helped others realise it” over the course of her life.

“When she arrived in the United States as a young girl aboard the SS America in 1948, she never dreamt that she would become our nation's first female secretary of state. She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world,” he said.

Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said Ms Albright’s “remarkable, pathbreaking life took her from fleeing Soviet communism as a young girl with her family to helping steer American global leadership from the commanding heights of public service half a century later”.

“You didn’t have to share every one of Secretary Albright’s policy views to appreciate her dedicated leadership on behalf of our nation. I genuinely enjoyed the times we got to work together on shared interests including the ongoing project of helping secure a democratic future for the people of Burma,” he said. “Secretary Albright understood keenly that the United States of America is a global power with global interests and global responsibilities and must act accordingly.”

His Democratic counterpart, majority leader Chuck Schumer, said in a statement that Ms Albright “was one-of-a kind and first-of-a-kind”.

“While she may have been small in stature, she was a titan in American history and statecraft. Her brilliance, passionate patriotism, and sharp wit made her a formidable presence on the world stage and her story inspired women and girls across the globe,” Mr Schumer said. “My thoughts are with Secretary Albright’s family as our nation pays deep gratitude for her years of service and remembers her life and legacy.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who like Ms Albright is the first woman to serve in her position, said the former diplomat had “truly blessed our nation with her patriotic service” and lamented how her death meant the world had lost “a towering champion for peace, diplomacy and democracy”.

“Her historic tenure as our nation’s first woman to serve as our top diplomat paved the way for generations of women to serve at the highest levels of our government and represent America abroad,” said Ms Pelosi, who added that Ms Albright’s later work as an author of books warning about the rise of far-right authoritarianism was “prescient” and provided “important guide and resource as we work to defend democracy at home and abroad”.

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