Madeleine Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State Who Fled War as a Child, Dies at 84

The 64th Secretary of State and the first woman to hold the position, Albright had advocated for a stronger stance against the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and became a feminist icon in her later years

Reuters
Ofer Aderet
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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks at a reception at the State Department in Washington, in 2017.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks at a reception at the State Department in Washington, in 2017.Credit: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP
Reuters
Ofer Aderet

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as the U.S. secretary of state, has died at the age of 84 of cancer, her family said on Wednesday.

She was a tough-talking diplomat in an administration that hesitated to involve itself in the two biggest foreign policy crises of the 1990s – the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"We are heartbroken to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, the 64th U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that position, passed away earlier today. The cause was cancer," the family said on Twitter.

Albright, who had become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, had pressed for a tougher line against the Serbs in Bosnia. But during President Bill Clinton's first term, many of the administration's top foreign policy experts vividly remembered how the United States became bogged down in Vietnam and were determined to not repeat that error in the Balkans.

Albright's experience as a refugee prompted her to push for the United States to be a superpower which used that clout. She wanted a "muscular internationalism," said James O'Brien, a senior adviser to Albright during the Bosnian war.

She once upset a Pentagon chief by asking why the military maintained more than 1 million men and women under arms if they never used them.

In a 2014 interview with Haaretz, Albright noted that Israel's peace process with the Palestinian leadership was lost with Rabin's assassination in 1995, an event she dubbed "one of the great historical, political tragedies of all time."

"Now instead of having a lubricant, like Rabin, you had sandpaper like Netanyahu," she said, referring to Netanyahu's election as prime minister. "Netanyahu was really difficult. We spent an incredible amount of time with him.

Albright also expressed disappointment with Ehud Barak for failing to advance with a peace process; Barak “turned out to be bold but very difficult in terms of how he negotiated. When we were doing the Syria track in Shepherdstown, he had promised us that he would take a certain set of steps. Then he gets in and says, ‘I’m not going to do them,’ even though he had been the one who wanted us there. It was like dealing with — I don’t want to be patronizing, but — with children," she said in the interview.

The plain-spoken Albright took a tough line on a 1996 incident where Cuban jet fighters downed two unarmed U.S.-based planes, saying: "This is not cojones, this is cowardice," using a Spanish vulgarity meaning "testicles."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L), former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (C), and former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) greet each other at a dinner at Camp David, Maryland,Credit: WHITE HOUSE - AFP

Albright was a marked contrast to her predecessors and male colleagues in uniform suits. She used clothes and jewelry to send tart, political messages. One favorite was a snake brooch, a reference to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein calling her an "unparalleled serpent."

She wrote a book about her signature jewelry, one of several bestsellers, explaining that the pins were a diplomatic tool. Balloons or flower pins would indicate she felt optimistic, while a crab or turtle would indicate frustration.

Born Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague on May 15, 1937, her family fled in 1939 to London when Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. She attended school in Switzerland at age 10 and adopted the name Madeleine.

She was raised a Roman Catholic but after she became secretary of state, the Washington Post dug up documentation showing that her family was Jewish and relatives, including three grandparents, died in the Holocaust. Her parents likely converted to Catholicism from Judaism to avoid persecution as Nazism gained strength in Europe, the paper reported.

After the war, the family left London and returned to Czechoslovakia, then in the throes of a communist takeover.

Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in December 2007. Credit: OMAR AL-RASHIDI - AFP

Her father, a diplomat and academic who opposed communism, moved the family to the United States where he taught international studies at the University of Denver. One of his favorite students was Condoleezza Rice, who would become the second female secretary of state in 2005 under Republican President George W. Bush. "It is quite remarkable that this Czech émigré professor has trained two secretaries of state," Albright told the New York Times in 2006.

Albright attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and got a doctorate from Columbia University. She became fluent or close to it in six languages including Czech, French, Polish and Russian as well as English.

In 1959, she married newspaper heir Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, whom she met while working at the Denver Post, and they had three daughters. They divorced in 1982.

She followed her father into academia but also became involved in Democratic politics. Albright joined the staff of Senator Edmund Muskie, a Maine Democrat, in 1976 and two years later became a member of President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff.

Since leaving the Clinton administration, she has written a series of books. One, "Hell and Other Destinations," was published in April 2020. Others include her autobiography, "Madam Secretary: A Memoir" (2003) and "Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box" (2009).

Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, September 3, 2014.Credit: AP

Once the Clinton years and the 1990s were over, Albright became an icon to a generation of young women looking for inspiration in their quest for opportunity and respect in the workplace. Albright was fond of saying: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other."

Israel's foreign minister, Yair Lapid, wrote on his Twitter in Hebrew and English that "Madeleine Albright’s rise from refugee to being the first woman to serve as Secretary of State inspired millions worldwide," particularly Jews in Israel and the world over. "The world today is a better place because of her leadership. May her memory be for a blessing."

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