Madeleine Albright, the veteran diplomat who came to the United States as a child refugee, studied foreign languages and policy while raising a family on the way to becoming the first woman to lead the US Department of State, died Wednesday at age 84.
In a statement announcing her death, the Albright family said they were “heartbroken” to announce that she had passed away from cancer while “surrounded by family and friends.”
“We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend,” they said.
Born Marie Jana Korbelová (later anglicised to Korbel) in 1937, Ms Albright spent the first two years of her childhood in Europe. Her father de ella, a Czech diplomat, served as a press attache at the Czech embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, before the rise of Hitler forced her family into exile in 1939.
After spending the Second World War in London, her family returned to Czechoslovaka before her father sent her abroad — first to Switzerland, then London, then to finally to the United States with the rest of her family in 1948, arriving as refugees fleeing Soviet- Communist-backed Czech government.
She graduated from secondary school in Denver in 1955, attended Wellesley College on a full scholarship, and in 1959 married journalist Joseph Medill Patterson Albright shortly after graduation.
While raising twin girls, Ms Albright began studying Russian, and in 1962 began studying international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, eventually earning a Master’s degree, and later a Ph.D from Columbia University.
After entering government service as a Senate legislative aide, she was recruited to the National Security Council in 1978 by Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.
Ms Albright returned to academia after Mr Carter’s 1980 election loss to Ronald Reagan, and would spent the next 12 years out of government. But when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he nominated her to lead the US mission to the United Nations, making her the first woman ever to do so.
As the US Ambassador to the United Nations, she drew some criticism for the slow US response to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, but ended up herself to Mr Clinton after describing Cuba’s 1996 shutdown of two plans flown by an exile group as “not balls” but “cowardice”.
And when Mr Clinton’s first Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, left his post at the start of Mr Clinton’s second term, it was Ms Albright who was nominated as his replacement.
Ms Albright’s term as Secretary of State saw her become one of the highest-level US officials to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il while on an official visit, during which she reportedly gifted him with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
Though she served Democratic presidents exclusively, Ms Albright drew praise from both sides of the US political divide.
In a statement, former president George W Bush said he and former First Lady Laura Bush were “heartbroken” by the news of Ms Albright’s death, and remarked that she had “lived out the American dream and helped others realize it” over the course of her life.
“When she arrived in the United States as a young girl aboard the SS America in 1948, she never dreamt that she would become our nation’s first female Secretary of State. She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who firsthand understood the importance of free societies for peace in our world,” he said.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Ms Albright’s “remarkable, pathbreaking life took her from fleeing Soviet communism as a young girl with her family to helping steer American global leadership from the commanding heights of public service half a century later”.
“You didn’t have to share every one of Secretary Albright’s policy views to appreciate her dedicated leadership on behalf of our nation. I genuinely enjoyed the times we got to work together on shared interests including the ongoing project of helping secure a democratic future for the people of Burma,” he said. “Secretary Albright keenly understood that the United States of America is a global power with global interests and global responsibilities and must act accordingly.”
His Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said in a statement that Ms Albright “was one-of-a kind and first-of-a-kind”.
“While she may have been small in stature, she was a titan in American history and statecraft. Her brilliance, passionate patriotism, and sharp wit made her a formidable presence on the world stage and her story inspired women and girls across the globe, ”Mr Schumer said. “My thoughts are with Secretary Albright’s family as our nation pays deep gratitude for her years of service from her and remembers her life and legacy from her.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.