Madeleine Albright

Identification: Czechoslovakian-born American who became U.S. secretary of state

Born: May 15, 1937; Prague, Czechoslovakia

Significance: A scholar who became the first woman to serve as a U.S. secretary of state, Albright drew on her life experience and extensive knowledge of world affairs to champion human rights and gender equality around the world.

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright in 1997. (U.S. Department of State)

Madeleine Albright was born Marie Jana Körbel, a member of an established Jewish family in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1937. Had German expansionism and the events of World War II not intervened, she might have known a comfortable, urbane existence in her native land. However, Nazi-ruled Germany advanced into Czechoslovakia the year after she was born, and her native country was forever transformed. Because the Körbels were Jewish, three of Albright’s grandparents would later die in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. However, she herself would not learn her full family history until many years later, after she became U.S. secretary of state. When she was five, she and her immediate family members were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. The family also dropped the umlaut from the name "Körbel”; the resulting "Korbel” had a less Jewish and more Czech sound. From that time, Marie Jana became known as Madeleine and was the only member of the family who attended Catholic mass regularly.

During the war years, as German armies advanced across eastern Europe, Albright’s family fled to England. After the war ended in 1945, they returned briefly to Czechoslovakia, where her father, a noted scholar in international relations, entered the Czech diplomatic service as ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania. However, after it became evident that her father was not in harmony with the communist regime that assumed rule in Czechoslovakia during the late 1940’s, her family became refugees a second time. In 1949, they immigrated to the United States and settled in Denver, Colorado. Madeleine’s father accepted a professorship at the University of Colorado in nearby Boulder. There he developed a distinguished international relations program and mentored two future U.S. secretaries of state—his own daughter and, later, Condoleezza Rice, who would served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state. 

Life in the United States

As a teenager, Madeleine adapted easily to American life, pleasing her father with her academic accomplishments. In the private girls school she attended in Denver, she was described as neither the brightest nor the prettiest but always the most highly motivated. It was thus not surprising when she matriculated on scholarship toWellesley College in 1955. Active in campus organizations, she made lasting friends from different backgrounds. She also acquired the ultimate mark of acceptance for an immigrant woman of modest means when, a few days after her graduation from Wellesley. she married into one of America’s most prominent and wealthy families. Her journalist husband, Joseph Patterson Albright, was heir to a newspaper empire that included the Chicago Tribune. Demonstrating again the Korbel family flexibility in religious affiliation, Madeleine complied with her new mother-in-law’s request that she become an Episcopalian. However, she explained to the Episcopal bishop who instructed her that she could not renounce her Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Throughout her marriage years, Albright suppressed her own ambitions while promoting the career of her husband. Meanwhile, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University, specializing, like her father, in international relations. She also acquired a second mentor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, another eastern European immigrant professor, who would later become national security advisor to U.S. president Jimmy Carter. 

Diplomatic Career

In 1982, after twenty-two years of marriage, Joseph Albright left Madeleine for another woman. Traumatic as the divorce was for Madeleine, it enabled her for the first time to follow her own career path. Now firmly identified as "Albright,” she taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the District of Columbia and advised Democrat politicians such as Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate. Ferraro became a friend with whom Albright attended mass, when she briefly reverted to the Roman Catholicism of her childhood.

The election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 catapulted Albright into national prominence. After taking office, Clinton appointed Albrightambassador to the United Nations. Albright’s facility in European languages and her wide acquaintance with eastern European diplomats gave her an advantage over most American officials. At the United Nations she dealt with problems in Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, and Rwanda and closely monitored events in the Middle East. The plight of women, particularly in underdeveloped countries was a concern she shared with the president’s wife, Hillary Clinton, a fellow Wellesley graduate who became her close friend.

In 1997, President Clinton named Albright to the highest government office ever held by an American woman: U.S. secretary of state. The drama of her personal story, her charm, and even the jewelry she wore attracted wide press attention. More than most diplomatic officials, she was able to interest the general public in international issues. She traveled tirelessly, addressing a variety of pressing problems: ethnic conflicts in countries recently liberated from communism, the growth of religion-based terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the ever-present Middle Eastern tensions. Perhaps because she had herself escaped the prime European tyrants of the twentieth century, Germany’s Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, she reacted forcefully to "ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans and genocide in Africa.

Lasting Achievements

Albright was much admired in Europe. As a patriotic American, she rejected Václav Havel’s extraordinary suggestion that she might succeed him as president of the Czech Republic. Her legacy was already impressive. She made the highest levels of U.S. government secure for talented women and worked to improve the lot of women everywhere. While acknowledging the dangers of a new world order, she maintained cordial relations with post- Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Even in difficult peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, she could claim modest gains. Because she had become an American citizen by choice rather than through birth, she unceasingly promoted American ideals of justice and freedom. Although she did not employ the phrase "manifest destiny” of an earlier era, she spoke and wrote of her conviction that her adopted country did have the special task of spreading its ideals.

Allene Phy-Olsen

Further Reading

Albright, Madeleine. Madame Secretary: A Memoir. New York: Miramax, 2003. Revealing memoir in which Albright covers both her personal life and her professional career after she completed her term as U.S. secretary of state.

_______. The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Accessible study of religious movements throughout the world and their political ramifications.

Blackman, Ann. Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Straightforward biography of Albright by an admirer. 

Dobbs, Michael. Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Critical examination of Albright’s career by the journalist who uncovered the Korbel family’s Jewish past while Albright was secretary of state. 

Lippman, Thomas W. Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Balanced account of Albright’s relations with both world figures and journalists. 

See also: Anti-Semitism; Czech and Slovakian immigrants; Higher education; Holocaust; Jewish immigrants; Marriage; Refugees; Religions of immigrants.

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