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

Family's fleeing Nazism influenced how she viewed world affairs and US role in them

Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of State, seen here testifying on Capitol Hill, died Wednesday at 84.
Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of State, seen here testifying on Capitol Hill, died Wednesday at 84. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Madeleine Albright, the country’s first female secretary of State and an influential foreign policy counselor into her 80s, died Wednesday.

Albright, 84, died of cancer in Washington, according to news reports.

The daughter of Czech refugees, her family’s experience fleeing Nazism and Soviet Communism had a strong influence on how she viewed world affairs and the United States’ role in them.

She went on to achieve academic acclaim and to scale the American policymaking community. When she was confirmed as President Bill Clinton’s second secretary of State, a position she held from 1997 to 2001, she became the highest-ranking female in the U.S. government.

“In every role, she used her fierce intellect and sharp wit — and often her unmatched collection of pins — to advance America’s national security and promote peace around the world,” President Joe Biden said in a statement from Brussels, where he is attending an emergency NATO meeting. “America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights than Secretary Albright, who knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy.”

Senate Foreign Relations member Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement, “She used her experience as a refugee who fled Communism to become one of the real giants of American foreign policy and drew on that service to mentor the next generation of leaders.”

A supporter of NATO enlargement, Albright as the United States’ top diplomat backed Poland, Hungary and her native Czech Republic’s admission to the Western military alliance.

“To quote an old Central European expression, ‘Hallelujah!’” Albright said in 1999 at the ceremony to mark the three countries’ accession to NATO.

A strong backer of the alliance during her time in government and later in her decades of work in the private sector as a much-sought voice and adviser on foreign policy, Albright held a nuanced view of the role of NATO in the international community. She urged its member states to be mindful of how non-alliance members perceived its actions.

“Our alliance must make decisions about future members based on qualifications alone — neither asserting nor recognizing a sphere of influence, neither opposing nor appeasing the government of any other country,” Albright said in a 2009 speech in Brussels. “No nation can dictate to another what alliance that country may or may not join.”

In her final op-ed for The New York Times, published immediately before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine last month, Albright warned the Russian authoritarian leader he was about to make a “historic error.”

As secretary of State, Albright played a leading role in NATO’s campaign to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, facilitated arduous peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, championed nuclear nonproliferation and arms control treaties, and promoted human rights and democracy around the world.

“We have lost a giant and I have lost a dear friend,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who co-chairs the Senate NATO Observer Group. “We were linked through our common bonds as women working in national security structures, which before her were almost entirely off limits to women.”

In an unusually personal statement, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, discussed his family connection to Albright, who was his oldest brother’s mother-in-law, and whom he called “Grandma Maddie.”

“She was thrilled to have a politician in the family and wanted to be helpful without casting a long shadow, so she discreetly asked her friend, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, to keep an eye out for me,” Schatz said, referring to the Maryland Democrat. “She was a tireless and sharp political strategist, the kind of person who would watch C-SPAN for fun, who was endlessly fascinated by politics at all levels, from municipal elections to the United Nations.”

Prior to becoming secretary of State, Albright served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Clinton’s first term. And before that, she worked on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council as a congressional liaison, tracking foreign policy-related bills.

Albright worked on Capitol Hill from 1976 to 1978 as the chief legislative assistant for Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, D-Maine, who himself rose to become Carter’s secretary of State. She remained a consistently well-regarded figure on Capitol Hill, with Republicans and Democrats alike.

“You didn’t have to share every one of Secretary Albright’s policy views to appreciate her dedicated leadership on behalf of our nation,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “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.”

Albright was born in Prague in 1937. She came from a Catholic-Jewish family and lost dozens of family members during the Holocaust. However, her Jewish heritage was kept from her and she did not learn about it until The Washington Post unearthed it while she was secretary of State.

Her family fled Prague shortly after the Communist takeover there and immigrated to the United States in 1948. She received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and her master’s and doctorate from Columbia University.

She was a rare example of an octogenarian who stayed robustly and deeply intellectually engaged with policy, holding a full and varied portfolio of leadership commitments as the founder of the Albright Capital Management private investment fund and chairwoman of the Albright Stonebridge consulting firm.

Albright was also a professor of practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University, president of the Truman Scholars Foundation, and chair of the National Democratic Institute, which is part of the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy. Additionally, she was on the board of the Aspen Institute and was appointed in 2021 as chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board.

She wrote seven books, including the 2003 national bestseller, a doorstopper of an autobiography, “Madam Secretary: A Memoir.”

And she was equipped with one of the most famous and fearsome brooch collections in Washington, which became the subject of another one of her books.

“Usually, Madeleine does the talking. Once in a while, she lets her jewelry do the talking,” President Barack Obama said in 2012 when he awarded Albright the presidential medal of freedom. “When Saddam Hussein called her a ‘snake,’ she wore a serpent on her lapel the next time she visited Baghdad. When Slobodan Milosevic referred to her as a ‘goat,’ a new pin appeared in her collection.”

Albright is survived by her three daughters, Alice, Anne and Katherine, from her marriage to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, who she divorced in 1983; her sister Katherine Silva; her brother, John Korbel; and six grandchildren, according to The New York Times.

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