The day in January 1997 that Madeleine Albright became the first US female secretary of state, Henry Kissinger telephoned. America’s grand foreign policy strategist told Albright that she was only the second immigrant to occupy that role. “Welcome to the fraternity,” said Kissinger. “It’s not fraternity any more,” Albright shot back. Having made it to the pinnacle of a male-dominated world, such quips were second nature. Albright, who died on Wednesday a few weeks short of her 85th birthday, coined many such variants throughout her career.
Albright began life as Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague in 1937. Her father, a Czechoslovakian diplomat, was born and raised in the Austro-Hungarian empire that dissolved after the first world war. The shadow of Europe’s dark 20th century would shape Albright’s worldview for the rest of her life. It was only when she became secretary of state that the Catholic-raised Albright discovered she was born Jewish. Three of her four grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. Some sceptics asked: “How could she not have known?” Such inquiries were mixed with sympathy that immigrants to postwar America would have wanted to blend in.
A few months before the second world war, Albright’s father moved to London, where she lived until she was eight. She retained vivid memories of hiding under a metal kitchen table during the Blitz. After a subsequent brief spell at the Czech embassy in Belgrade, her father took the family across the Atlantic as refugees from newly-communist Czechoslovakia. Albright spent the rest of her youth in Colorado, where her father taught at the University of Denver. Among his later students was Condoleezza Rice, the second woman to serve as America’s top diplomat. Albright won a scholarship to Wellesley College. Marriage and child-bearing delayed her PhD on journalism in the “Prague Spring” before the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion, which she completed in 1975.
Albright liked to say that she had three big breaks. The first was in 1972, when she was invited by Ed Muskie, a Democratic senator, to raise funds for his presidential bid. She later joined his Senate staff. Then in 1977, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to the new president Jimmy Carter, recruited her as his liaison to Capitol Hill. “Madeleine gave sex to the office,” said Muskie at her farewell party. “Gender, senator, gender,” Albright corrected. Since Muskie was Polish-American, and Brzezinski was born in Poland, Albright joked that she had gone from “Pole to Pole”.
Her third break was in 1982 when she divorced her husband, Joseph Albright, a scion of newspaper wealth and a notorious philanderer. She then quickly rose to the front ranks of the Democratic party foreign policy world. In 1988, she advised Michael Dukakis’ losing presidential campaign. His rhetoric had been insufficiently “macho”, she later observed. The same could rarely be said of Albright. Her generation was divided between those scarred by the Vietnam war, which created a suspicion of US power, and those marked by the infamous 1938 Munich summit, which lamented its absence. Albright was firmly in the Munich camp. “We are the indispensable nation,” Albright once said. “We stand tall and we see further than other countries.”
In 1993, Bill Clinton made Albright the first female US ambassador to the UN, where she won a reputation as a tough operator. She was instrumental in denying Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN secretary-general, a second term. Both at the UN and then as secretary of state, Albright championed US power. She once asked Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff: “What is the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Examples of that power included the air campaign that preceded the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which ended the Bosnian war; strikes on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1998 after he had expelled UN weapons inspectors; and the 78-day Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 that resulted in Kosovo’s independence. Albright had to fight battles against White House sceptics to persuade Clinton. As a liberal hawk, rather than a neoconservative, Albright opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Though an unashamedly proud American, she never lost sight of her past. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, she wrote the book Fascism: A Warning. Until the pandemic, Albright would hold regular dinner parties at her Georgetown home in the style of the salons hosted by Katharine Graham, the Washington Post publisher, and Pamela Harriman, the US diplomat. She also set up a conclave of former allied foreign ministers that she dubbed “Madeleine’s exes”. She is survived by three daughters.