Madeleine Albright, first female US secretary of state, dies at 84

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.

 Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright takes the stage during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US July 26, 2016.  (photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright takes the stage during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US July 26, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)

Madeleine Albright, who fled the Nazis as a child in her native Czechoslovakia during World War II and went on to become the first female US secretary of state, and in her later years a pop-culture feminist icon, died on Wednesday at 84, her family said.

Albright 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 US Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that position, passed away earlier today,” the family said on Twitter. “The cause was cancer.”

Albright was US ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997, and President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.

Born Marie Jean Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, her family fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia for London in 1939. She was raised a Roman Catholic.

 Madeline Albright of the United States arrives for the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Britain's former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook at St. Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London December 5, 2005. (credit: REUTERS/Stephen Hird) Madeline Albright of the United States arrives for the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Britain's former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook at St. Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London December 5, 2005. (credit: REUTERS/Stephen Hird)

Returning home after the war, Albright’s father became a Czech ambassador, but the family fled again when the Czech government fell to a Communist coup. Like some other Holocaust refugees, Albright’s parents likely converted to Catholicism from Judaism to avoid persecution, and then felt it safer to remain Christians even after they were granted asylum in the US in 1949.

After she became secretary of state, the Washington Post dug up documentation showing that her family was Jewish, and that her relatives, including three grandparents, died in the Holocaust. The cause of death of her maternal grandmother, Ruzena Spieglova, was never established.

According to Albright, her parents never told their daughter their full story, and Albright never embraced her Jewishness. 

The uncovering of Albright’s origins caused a storm in the Jewish world, with many commentators calling her out and questioning how someone as sensitive to history as Albright could have been so incurious about her family’s origins.

In a visit to Yad Vashem in 1997 while secretary of state, the diplomatic ceremony was devoid of any public declaration of personal or family meaning. Indeed, her two-minute statement following a visit to the Children’s Memorial touched only on the universality of the Holocaust, without once mentioning its Jewish content.

While at the United Nations, she pressed for a tougher line against the Serbs in Bosnia after Bosnian Serb military forces laid siege to the capital Sarajevo.

During Clinton’s first term, many of the administration’s top foreign policy experts did not want to get involved because they vividly remembered how the United States became bogged down in Vietnam.

In 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers overran three Moslem enclaves, Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa, and massacred more than 8,000 people.

The United States responded by working with NATO on airstrikes that forced an end to the war, but only after it had been going on for three years.

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 one million men and women under arms if they never used them.

O’Brien said that early in the Clinton administration, while she unsuccessfully advocated for a quicker, stronger response in Bosnia, Albright backed a UN war crimes tribunal that eventually put the architects of that war, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders, in jail.

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

She was nominated to become the first woman secretary of state and confirmed unanimously in 1997. She held the post until 2001.

The painful lessons learned in Rwanda and Bosnia served the United States well in Kosovo, when Washington saw the more powerful Serbs begin a program of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians. NATO responded with an 11-week campaign of air strikes in 1999 that extended to Belgrade.

During efforts to press North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, which were eventually unsuccessful, Albright traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit the secretive Communist-run country.

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. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Albright was fond of saying.

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.

Albright attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and received 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).

The plain-spoken Albright made forays into popular culture. “Parks and Recreation” star Amy Poehler’s character had a picture of Albright in her office.

In the Gilmore Girls television series in 2005, the character Rory dreamed that Albright, wearing a red suit and an eagle pin, was her mother.

In 2018, she and fellow former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton briefed a fictional secretary of state in Madam Secretary, where she spoke passionately about the dangers of abusive nationalism.•