MADELEINE KORBEL ALBRIGHT
To begin with the headlines: In a New York Times article last week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that “Putin is making a historic mistake” by invading Ukraine. She continued, “a bloody and catastrophic war will drain Russian resources and cost Russian lives and will ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.”
This is typical Albright-speak looking back decades: forceful and to the point. She had a strong influence on American diplomacy; indeed, her lasting legacy is in diplomatic service and in teaching diplomacy to students. As Secretary she promoted the expansion of NATO eastward into the former Soviet bloc nations and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics. She successfully pressed for military intervention under NATO auspices during the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo in 1999, supported the expansion of free-market democratization in the developing world, favored the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on Global Climate Change, and furthered the normalization of relations with Vietnam.
Born in 1937 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Madeleine Korbel Albright, now 84, became the first female secretary of state in 1997, appointed by President Bill Clinton (followed later by Condoleezza Rice in 2005 and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2009).
She is also known for her collection of over 200 costume jewelry pins, which she often wears to convey certain messages (strength, resilience). They have been exhibited at 31 museums and presidential libraries. And she was always impeccably–but not fussily–put together. In 2013 The Guardian lauded her look as one of the best dressed 50 individuals over the age of 50.
The story of Madeleine Albright is one that touches on communism, anti-semitism, immigration, academic excellence, feminism, political and diplomatic achievement, national security, and international relations.
Albright’s father was a member of the Czechoslovak Foreign Service and became Ambassador to Yugoslavia. After the communist coup in 1948, the family immigrated to Denver. Albright became a U.S. citizen in 1957, and earned a B.A. in political science with honors from Wellesley College in 1959. She earned the Ph.D. in Public Law and Government at Columbia University in 1976.
In 1959, shortly after her graduation from Wellesley, she married journalist Joseph Albright, whom she met while an intern at the Denver Post. He was the nephew of Alicia Patterson, owner of Newsday and wife of philanthropist Harry Frank Guggenheim. They had three daughters before divorcing in 1982.
Raised Roman Catholic, Albright converted to the Episcopal Church at the time of her marriage. Her parents had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1941, during her early childhood, while still in Czechoslovakia, in an effort to avoid anti-Jewish persecution before they immigrated to the U. S. But they never discussed their Jewish ancestry with her.
When The Washington Post reported on Albright’s Jewish heritage shortly after she had become Secretary of State in 1997, Albright called the report a “major surprise.” She has said that she did not learn until age 59 that both her parents were born and raised in Jewish families. As many as a dozen of her relatives in Czechoslovakia—including three of her grandparents—had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Getting her bona fides in the legislative as well as diplomatic and academic arenas, Albright served as chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) from 1976 to 1978, and then, until 1981, as a White House staff member under President Jimmy Carter and on the National Security Council under National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Discussing a subject unusual for a diplomat, Albright’s book Poland, the Role of the Press in Political Change, discusses the role played by the press during a time of unusual political change in Poland during the 1980s.
In 1982 she was appointed Research Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and director of its Women in Foreign Service Program. In 1993 she was appointed Ambassador to the United Nations by President Clinton and served in the position until her appointment as Secretary of State.
As with any famous professional or public servant, her career was not without controversy: one concerned allegations of hate speech against Serbs. In 2012, during a book signing in Prague, Albright was confronted by a group of Czech activists. She was filmed saying, “Disgusting Serbs, get out!” to the Czech group, which had brought war photos to the signing, some of which showed Serbian victims of the Kosovo War in 1999. While the protesters were expelled from the event when police arrived, videos of the incident were later posted by the group on their YouTube channel. The protesters claimed that she was spreading ethnic hatred and disrespect to the victims of the war. Albright’s involvement in the NATO bombing of Serbia was the main cause of the demonstration.
Her alma mater, Wellesley College, is the home of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, an international studies institute that she established in 2009 to support the interdisciplinary study of global issues within a liberal arts framework.
Called a feminist icon by The Washington Post, Albright is now a Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown, where she teaches an extremely popular class called American National Security Tool Box. Her sixth and latest book, published in 2018, is called Fascism: A Warning. She defines herself as “an optimist who worries a lot.”
Since 2009 she has been chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group consulting firm, and serves on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2012 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The award, she said, left her “almost speechless.” In comments at the ceremony, Obama recounted how, once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to Albright and said, ‘Only in America can a refugee meet the Secretary of State.’ And she replied, ‘Only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State.’
Albright today lives in Purcellville, Virginia. Clearly a woman whose achievements were ahead of her time, her contributions to her adopted homeland have been broad and far-reaching.