Madeleine Albright, a lifelong Democrat, worked hard to bring Republicans into her orbit. Former President Bill Clinton chose her to be America’s top diplomat in 1996, elevating her from her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She had been only the second woman to hold that job.
As secretary of state, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. However, she was not in the line of succession to the presidency because she was a native of Prague. Even by her political detractors, the glass ceiling that she broke was universally admired.
In announcing her death on Twitter, Albright’s family said she died of cancer and was surrounded by family and friends: “We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend,” the statement said.
Outpourings of condolences came quickly for Madeleine Albright.
“Laura and I are heartbroken by the news of Madeleine Albright’s death,” said former President George W. Bush. “She lived out the American dream and helped others realize it… She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world. I respect her love of country and public service, and Laura and I are grateful to have called Madeline Albright our friend.”
The White House had informed President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken of Albright’s death. They were flying to Brussels for an emergency meeting of NATO leaders about Ukraine.
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, honored Madeleine Albright as a “trailblazer and a luminary” on the General Assembly floor shortly after her death emerged.
“The impact that she has had on this building is felt every day. Just about every single corridor,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, who once co-taught a class with Albright at his alma mater, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where Albright was a professor for decades before and after her time in government.
“She was a trailblazer as the first female Secretary of State and quite literally opened doors for a large element of our workforce,” he said.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Madeleine Albright the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, saying her life was an inspiration to all Americans.
Albright remained outspoken through the years. After leaving office, she criticized President George W. Bush for using “the shock of force” rather than alliances to foster diplomacy and said Bush had driven away moderate Arab leaders and created the potential for a dangerous rift with European allies.
However, as a refugee from Czechoslovakia who saw the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Iron Curtain, she was not a dove. She played a leading role in pressing for the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo.
She also toed a hard line on Cuba, famously saying at the United Nations that the Cuban shootdown of a civilian plane was not “cojones” but rather “cowardice.”
She advised women “to act more confidently” and “ask questions when they occur and don’t wait to ask.”
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I will not be silent,” she told HuffPost Living in 2010.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of Bush’s proposed “surge” in U.S. troops in bloodied Iraq, she responded: “I think we need a surge in diplomacy. We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power, and our motives are suspect.”
Madeleine Albright was an internationalist whose point of view was shaped in part by her background. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London. After the war, as the Soviet Union took over vast chunks of eastern Europe, her father, a Czech diplomat, brought his family to the U.S.
As secretary of state, Albright played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. In her U.N. post, she advocated a tough U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia and NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was eventually dubbed “Madeleine’s War.”
“My mindset is Munich,” she frequently said, referring to the German city where the Western allies abandoned her homeland to the Nazis.
Albright helped win Senate ratification of NATO’s expansion and a treaty imposing international restrictions on chemical weapons. She led a successful fight to keep Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali from a second term as secretary-general of the United Nations. He accused her of deception and posing as a friend.
And she once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would later succeed her as secretary of state: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
Powell, who died last year, recalled in a memoir that Albright’s comments almost made him have an “aneurysm.”
“I am an eternal optimist,” Albright said in 1998, amid an effort as secretary of state to promote peace in the Middle East. But she said getting Israel to pull back on the West Bank and the Palestinians to rout terrorists posed serious problems.
As America’s top diplomat, Madeleine Albright made limited progress at first in expanding the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the principle of self-rule for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. But in 1998, she played a leading role in formulating the Wye Accords that turned over control of about 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
She also spearheaded an ill-fated effort to negotiate a 2000 peace deal between Israel and Syria under Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad. And she helped guide U.S. foreign policy during conflicts in the Balkans and the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
As an outspoken Democrat in private life, Albright often joked that she had her “political instincts surgically removed” when she became secretary of state. True to that, she formed an unlikely friendship with arch-conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms to increase funding for the State Department and U.S. diplomacy and oversaw a radical change in Washington’s handling of Cold War-era messaging.
Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, She was the daughter of Joseph Korbel’s diplomat. The family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 5. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.
Albright later said that she became aware of her Jewish background after becoming secretary of state. After World War II, the family returned to Czechoslovakia but fled again to the United States in 1948, after the Communists rose to power.
They settled in Denver, where her father obtained a job at the University of Denver. One of Josef Korbel’s best students, a young woman named Condoleezza Rice, would later succeed his daughter as secretary of state, the first Black woman to hold that office.
Among current officials who worked closely with Albright are Biden’s domestic policy adviser and former U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and others.
Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She worked as a journalist and later studied international relations at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1976.
She worked for the National Security Council during the Carter administration and advised Democrats on foreign policy before Clinton’s election. He nominated her as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in 1993.
Following her service in the Clinton administration, she headed a global strategy firm, Albright Stonebridge, and was chair of an investment advisory company focused on emerging markets.
She also wrote several books. In 1959, Albright got married to journalist Joseph Albright, a descendant of Chicago’s Medill-Patterson newspaper dynasty. They had three daughters before they divorced in 1983.
The late Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Barry Schweid contributed to this report.
Matthew Lee, The Associated Press