Madeleine Albright, First Woman To Serve As U.S. Secretary Of State, Dead At 84

The tireless champion of democracy also visited North Korea, becoming, at the time, the highest-ranking U.S. government official ever to visit that country.

Madeleine Albright, the first woman to have served as U.S. secretary of state, has died at the age of 84.

“We are heartbroken to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, the 64th U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that position, passed away earlier today,” Albright’s family said in a statement. The cause was cancer.

She is survived by her three daughters.

Albright was the first female secretary of state, serving under President Bill Clinton, from 1997 to 2001. At the time she was appointed, she became the highest-ranking woman to serve in the federal government.

Albright was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, to Josef Korbel, a diplomat, and Anna Spieglova. Her parents, who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, were forced into exile in 1939 when the Nazis occupied the region. The family returned briefly to Czechoslovakia after the war but left again after the communist takeover, this time emigrating to the United States. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Albright learned her parents had been Jewish and that many of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

Albright became an American citizen in 1957. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1959, and earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1975, after which she went to work for Ed Muskie, a Democratic senator from Maine.

From there, she joined President Jimmy Carter’s administration, working for her former Columbia professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, until Carter lost reelection in 1980.

Madeleine Albright (center) seen here in 1996, served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.
Madeleine Albright (center) seen here in 1996, served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.
Wally McNamee via Getty Images

When Democrats returned to power in 1992, then-President Bill Clinton appointed Albright the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where she represented key U.S. concerns, including the reshaping of Eastern and Central Europe following the collapse of the Societ Union. She pushed for more intervention during the wars in the Balkans and, in 1995, successfully advocated for airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces to protect Muslims in the region and to force the Bosnian Serbs to agree to a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

In 1996, she infamously told journalist Lesley Stahl that even though it was believed sanctions against Iraq had caused the deaths of up to half a million Iraqi children, the Clinton administration considered the sanctions “worth it.” (That death toll was ultimately much lower, the lead researcher on the study later wrote.)

In an interview with The New York Times in 2020, Albright said that, in retrospect, the comment was “totally stupid.”

Later in her career, Albright repeatedly described the failure to intervene in the 1994 Rawandan genocide her “greatest regret,” though she often shared that, at the time, she didn’t think a large-scale humanitarian intervention would have been possible.

Albright became secretary of state in 1997, and served throughout Clinton’s second term, continuing to address foreign policy issues that lasted throughout the decade, including unrest in the Middle East and the Balkans. In 1999, she worked with NATO allies to coordinate a bombing campaign to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

She also visited North Korea, becoming, at the time, the highest-ranking U.S. government official ever to visit that country and meet its then-leader, Kim Jong Il.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during an East Room event on May 29, 2012, at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during an East Room event on May 29, 2012, at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Albright was famous for using her expansive collection of brooches to tacitly comment on various issues during meetings with foreign leaders. In 2009, she wrote a book, “Read My Pins,” reflecting upon her diplomatic accessorizing. It was among the many bestselling books she published after her years in government, along with a memoir and a remembrance of her family’s experience during World War II.

She also held many senior positions in think tanks and academia after her tenure as secretary of state, including sitting on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations and serving as president of the Truman Scholarship Foundation.

Albright also continued to work in the private sector, founding a strategic consulting firm as well as a capital management fund focusing on investments in emerging markets.

Her groundbreaking career made her a well-known figure beyond politics, and she appeared as a guest star in the popular TV shows “Gilmore Girls” and “Parks & Recreation.”

In 2012, then-President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

She continued to be politically active in her later years, and was an outspoken opponent of President Donald Trump, criticizing his administration’s foreign policy and his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

But even during the depths of the pandemic, she maintained her belief in the goodness of the United States, both at home and abroad.

“I am, in case you haven’t noticed, an optimist,” she told the Times in 2020. “But I’m an optimist who worries a lot.”

Naomi Judd

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