Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of state, has died of cancer, her family said Wednesday. She was 84.
President Bill Clinton chose Albright as America’s top diplomat in 1996, and she served in that capacity for the last four years of the Clinton administration. She had previously been Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations.
At the time, she was the highest-ranking woman in the history of U.S. government. She was not in the line of succession for the presidency, however, because she was a native of Prague.
“She was surrounded by family and friends,” her family announced on Twitter. “We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend.” It said the cause was cancer.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded 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 potential for a dangerous rift with European allies.
However, as a refugee from Czechoslovakia, she was not a dove and 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 in a more confident manner” and “to 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 am not going to 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.”
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.
As secretary of state, she 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. “My mindset is Munich,” she said frequently, referring to the German city where the Western allies abandoned her homeland to the Nazis.
She 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.
In her U.N. post, she advocated a tough U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia. And she once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff: “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, Albright made limited progress at first in trying to expand 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.
Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, She was the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel. 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 she became secretary of state. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II but fled again, this time 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.
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 that focused on emerging markets.
She also wrote several books. Albright married journalist Joseph Albright, a descendant of Chicago’s Medill-Patterson newspaper dynasty, in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1983.