Show caption Madeleine Albright addressing a press conference in Washington, DC, as US secretary of state in 2000. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images US politics Madeleine Albright obituary Diplomat and scholar of international relations who served as the first female US secretary of state Godfrey Hodgson Wed 23 Mar 2022 21.15 GMT Share on Facebook
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Madeleine Albright, who has died of cancer aged 84, was the first woman to hold the office of secretary of state of the United States. It fell to her to cope with the painful dilemmas presented for the US by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of Islamic opposition in the Middle East.
While she fulfilled the role in the administration of President Bill Clinton, she could not take the place that office usually confers as third in succession to the president because she was not a “natural born citizen” of the US. Like Henry Kissinger, a secretary of state in the Nixon administration, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, she had been a refugee from Europe. Like them also, Albright came to the job not via business or politics but through an academic background in the study of international relations.
Like Brzezinski, her professor at Columbia University, she was the daughter of a diplomat. Her father, Josef Korbel, took refuge from the communist government of his native Czechoslovakia, becoming a professor at the University of Denver. She was brought up a Roman Catholic and became an Anglican after her marriage, but when Albright became secretary of state, she received letters telling her that her parents were Jewish, and a Washington Post journalist, Michael Dobbs, after painstaking research, convinced her that this might be true. This caused a good deal of comment, some of it critical of her having concealed her ancestry. The truth seems to be that she was genuinely ignorant of her Jewish heritage.
Madeleine Albright visiting US soldiers based in Bosnia in 2000. Photograph: Amel Emric/AP
She concluded that in the Czechoslovakia of the 1930s, where Jews were often seen by Czechs as part of the German minority, her parents, Josef and his wife, Anna (nee Spieglová), thought she would have a safer life if she were seen to be Czech. Three of her grandparents subsequently died in Nazi concentration camps.
Eldest of three children, she was born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague. Her family took refuge from the Nazis in Switzerland, where she was educated at the Préalpina Institut pour Jeunes Filles on Lake Geneva. Madeleine was a French version of her Czech name.
During the second world war, her family moved to London, which became the headquarters of the Czech government in exile, and Madeleine was brought up first in Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill, then in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. Later, the Korbels returned to Prague, but in 1948, when the communists took over there, they moved to the US.
In 1957 she went to Wellesley College, near Boston, one of the elite women’s colleges. There she became an American citizen. When working a summer vacation shift at the Denver Post, she met a scion of one of the most powerful American newspaper dynasties of the time, Joseph Albright. They married in 1959.
Madeleine Albright with President Bill Clinton, his wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea, on the steps of Air Force One in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1999. Photograph: Greg Gibson/AP
If Madeleine had been born with a silver spoon, Joe Albright’s spoons were of the rarest platinum. His family was at the heart of American business, political and social life. At different times his relatives owned the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Times-Herald, the New York Daily News and Long Island’s Newsday, and they traded properties with William Randolph Hearst.
Madeleine Albright took a master’s degree, then a doctorate in international relations at Columbia University, New York, where Brzezinski was one of her teachers. From 1976 to 1978 she worked as a legislative assistant to Senator Ed Muskie, a Democrat, of Maine. In 1978 she was recruited by Brzezinski to do congressional liaison on the national security staff at the Carter White House. After Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980, she went to the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, where she undertook a study of the new politics of eastern Europe.
In 1981, when her marriage ended, Albright threw herself into the academic, political, social and fundraising worlds in Washington. In 1982 she began to teach at Georgetown University, and she worked on the election campaign staffs of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for vice-president in 1984, and of Michael Dukakis, the presidential candidate in 1988.
Albright, with her considerable expertise in both domestic and international politics, and her ability to speak several foreign languages, was a natural choice for Clinton, when he was elected president in 1992, to choose as US ambassador at the United Nations. There she soon demonstrated charm and competence, occasionally tarnished by a certain proneness to accident. She miscalculated badly when she advised that Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian nationalist leader, would cave in after brief bombing during the Kosovo crisis.
Madeleine Albright listens while the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat talks to President Bill Clinton on the telephone during peace talks in Gaza City, 1999. Photograph: Matty Stern/AP
More seriously for her reputation, when she was asked on NBC television by the journalist Lesley Stahl about the alleged death of half a million children as a result of sanctions imposed on Iraq, Albright responded: “We think the price is worth it.” The remark portrayed her as hardbitten, which was far from the case. The sanctions policy had been in place long before the Clinton administration, but the comment was not forgotten.
By the time of the Clinton administration, a female secretary of state was, if not exactly an idea whose time had come, at least not unthinkable, if the woman were well known and well liked in the Washington Democratic establishment. It is said that Clinton asked Albright if she was happy as ambassador to the UN; she replied that she was, but that she would rather be secretary of state. Clinton appointed her in 1997, at the beginning of his second term.
When George W Bush was elected president in 2000, Albright slipped back comfortably into her role as a popular member of the establishment, greatly in demand as a speaker at conferences. She founded the Albright Group, to give political advice to corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Merck and the insurance behemoth Marsh & McLennan, as well as a private equity firm, Albright Capital Management. In 2003 she joined the board of the New York stock exchange, and twice in 2006 she was invited to the White House to advise Bush. In the 2008 election she was in the Democratic camp as an adviser to Hillary Clinton in her campaign for the presidency, and again in 2016, when she told the Guardian: “I think she would have been a remarkable president.”
In 2012, when she published Prague Winter, partly an account of the politics of central Europe in the run-up to the second world war, partly an account of her discovery that she was Jewish, reviewers and readers seemed much more interested in how she could not have known that she was Jewish than in her political thought or career. She was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Barack Obama later that year.
She is survived by her three daughters, Anne, Alice and Katherine, and six grandchildren.
• Madeleine Albright, diplomat and political adviser, born 15 May 1937; died 23 March 2022
• Godfrey Hodgson died in 2021