Albright, Madeleine

▪ 1998

      On Jan. 23, 1997, Czech-born American diplomat Madeleine Albright, known for her tough-mindedness, was sworn in as the first woman to hold the post of U.S. secretary of state. She was not yet two years old when Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. The betrayal of that nation through the appeasement policies of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at the 1938 Munich Conference proved an enduring influence that shaped her political life. Considerably more hawkish than her predecessor, Warren Christopher, Albright was a strong advocate of the use of U.S. military and political power to accomplish foreign policy goals, stating "My mind-set is Munich. Most of my generation's is Vietnam."

      Albright, the daughter of a Czech diplomat, was born Marie Jana Korbel on May 15, 1937, in Prague. Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, her family fled to England. Although she spent most of her life believing that they had fled for political reasons, in 1997 she learned that her family was Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in German concentration camps. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II, but the Soviet-sponsored communist coup made the family refugees again, and by 1948 they had settled in the United States.

      In 1959 Albright graduated from Wellesley (Mass.) College and married Joseph Albright, a member of the Medill newspaper-publishing family. After earning (1968) a master's degree from Columbia University, New York City, she worked as a Democratic fund-raiser for Sen. Edmund Muskie's failed 1972 presidential campaign, and she later served as Muskie's chief legislative assistant. By 1976 she had received a Ph.D. from Columbia and was working for Zbigniew Brzezinski, Pres. Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.

      During the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s and early 1990s, Albright worked for several nonprofit organizations, and her Washington, D.C., home became a salon for influential Democratic politicians and policy makers. She also served (1982-93) as professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. After the election of Pres. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 1992, Albright's political star began rising, and Clinton named her ambassador to the United Nations in 1993. At the UN she gained a reputation as a fierce advocate for American interests while promoting an increased role for the United States in UN operations, particularly those with a military component.

      Following her unanimous confirmation by the Senate in 1997, the new secretary of state faced a number of volatile international situations. The Middle East peace process had collapsed in a welter of bloodshed; an increasingly bellicose North Korea was facing famine; and the expansion of NATO was meeting with vociferous opposition from Russia. By the year's end, Albright had visited Africa, Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East. Some critics charged her with emphasizing style over substance, suggesting that she lacked the vision necessary for the post. Others pointed out that it was Albright's job to implement foreign policy, not create it, and that she was not to blame for the somewhat confused vision that emerged from an administration focused on domestic issues.

JOHN H. MATHEWS

* * *

▪ United States statesman
née  Marie Jana Korbel  
born May 15, 1937, Prague, Czech. [now Czech Republic]
 
 Czech-born American public official who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (1993–97) and who was the first woman to hold the cabinet post of U.S. secretary of state (1997–2001).

      Marie Jana Korbel was the daughter of a Czech diplomat. After the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, her family fled to England. Although she spent most of her life believing that they had fled for political reasons, she learned in 1997 that her family was Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in German concentration camps. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II, but the Soviet-sponsored communist coup made them refugees again, and by 1948 they had settled in the United States.

      Korbel graduated from Wellesley (Massachusetts) College (B.A., 1959) and married Joseph Albright, a member of the Medill newspaper-publishing family. After earning a master's degree (1968) from Columbia University, New York City, she worked as a fund-raiser for Sen. Edmund Muskie's failed 1972 presidential campaign and later served as Muskie's chief legislative assistant. By 1976 she had received a Ph.D. from Columbia and was working for Zbigniew Brzezinski, Pres. Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.

      During the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s and early '90s, Albright worked for several nonprofit organizations, and her Washington, D.C., home became a salon for influential Democratic politicians and policy makers. She also was professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., from 1982 to 1993. After the election of Pres. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 1992, Albright's political star began to rise, and Clinton named her ambassador to the United Nations in 1993. At the UN she gained a reputation for tough-mindedness as a fierce advocate for American interests, and she promoted an increased role for the United States in UN operations, particularly those with a military component. Her nomination to the position of secretary of state was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1997.

      She left government service in 2001 and founded the Albright Group, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. A frequent columnist on foreign affairs issues, she served on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. She authored the memoir Madam Secretary (2003) and the policy primers The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (2006) and Memo to the President Elect (2008).

Additional Reading
Thomas Blood, Madam Secretary: A Biography of Madeleine Albright (1997); Ann Blackman, Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright (1998); Michael Dobbs, Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-century Odyssey (1999).

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Universalium. 2010.

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