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Madeleine Albright, first female U.S. secretary of State, dies at 84

Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of State, has died of cancer, her family says.

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A child of wartime, Madeleine Albright and her parents escaped to London ahead of the advancing Nazi troopers only to return to Czechoslovakia years later and flee again — this time as communist forces seized control of her homeland.

In the U.S., Albright grew into a bright student with aspirations of becoming a journalist before she began her ascent in the Democratic Party, climbing forever upward, her keen intellect and astute insights into the nation’s global interests a valued commodity among politicians.

She was a foreign policy advisor to presidential hopefuls, a counselor to President Carter and then secretary of State in the Clinton administration — at the time, the highest-ranking woman in the history of U.S. government. For a refugee, it was a remarkable climb.

Yet she typically reduced her accomplishments to shorthand: “Woman, Democrat, international affairs specialist, university professor, mother of three daughters,” she said when pressed for her biography.

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Tough and assertive until the end, Albright died Wednesday of complications of cancer. She was 84.

“Madeleine Albright was a force. Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history,” said President Biden, who ordered flags at the White House and other federal buildings and grounds to be flown at half-staff. “America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights than Secretary Albright, who knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy.”

Former President Clinton, who appointed Albright in 1996, was equally effusive.

“Few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served,” Clinton said in a statement, “because she knew firsthand that America’s policy decisions had the power to make a difference in people’s lives around the world, she saw her jobs as both an obligation and an opportunity.”

Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dies of COVID-19 complications after bout with blood cancer.

Oct. 18, 2021

As a refugee from Czechoslovakia who saw the horrors of both Nazi Germany and the Iron Curtain, Albright was hardly a dove and she played a leading role in pressing the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo.

She also took a hard line on Cuba, famously saying at the United Nations that the Cuban shoot-down of a civilian plane was not “cojones” but rather “cowardice.”

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of President George W. 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 frequently 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.

Albright was an internationalist whose point of view was shaped in part by her background. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as Adolf Hitler’s Germany started its move down a path of conquest, and she spent the war years in London. After the war, as the Soviet Union took over vast chunks of Eastern Europe, her father, a Czech diplomat, brought his family to the United States.

As secretary of State, Albright played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of ethnic Albanians in the breakaway Yugoslav region of Kosovo in 1999. While she was U.N. ambassador, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was eventually dubbed “Madeleine’s War.”

And she once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would later succeed her as secretary of State: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

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Powell, who died last year, recalled in a memoir that Albright’s comment almost made him have an aneurysm.

Despite her championing of diplomacy in the Middle East and a late Clinton-era foray to North Korea, Albright drew criticism for her support of sanctions against Iraq that many blamed for humanitarian suffering in the country under Saddam Hussein.

“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.

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 then-President Hafez al-Assad. She also helped guide U.S. foreign policy during the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.

Albright was fluent in Russian, French and Czech, and knew some Polish, Serbian and German. When meeting in Moscow in 1997 with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, her grasp of Russian was so secure that Yeltsin waved away his interpreter.

An outspoken Democrat in private life, Albright often joked that she had her “political instincts surgically removed” when she became secretary of State. True to that, she formed an unlikely friendship with arch-conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms to increase funding for the State Department and U.S. diplomacy and oversaw a radical change in Washington’s handling of Cold War-era messaging.

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Albright was born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel. The family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 5 in an effort to hide the family’s faith from the Nazis. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.

Albright later said that she became aware of her Jewish background and the loss of relatives in the Nazi death camps only after she became secretary of State.

“They were very protective of us. What they gave us children was the gift of life, literally. Twice, once by giving us birth and the other by bringing us to America to escape what, clearly now, would have been a certain death,” she told the Washington Post.

After fleeing Prague, the family 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 and was the first Black woman to hold that office.

Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She worked as a journalist at Rolla Daily News in Missouri and later studied international relations at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate.

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.

After 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.

In 2012, President Obama awarded Albright the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, saying her life was an inspiration to all Americans.

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.

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Times staff writer Steve Marble contributed to this report.

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