Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright died from cancer on March 23, 2022. However, it was the eighty-four years of life that preceded her final breath that make that news reverberate around the world.
Born Marie Jana Korbelova in 1937, she changed her name to Madeleine while a student at a private school in Switzerland. She was there because her father, a Czechoslovakian diplomat, feared that his daughter would be indoctrinated by Marxists at home in Belgrade.
Those fears proved prescient when, in 1948, the USSR took control of their home country and the family was forced to seek asylum in America, where her father became a professor at the University of Denver.
It was not the first time, however, that the advancement of a totalitarian regime had forced her family to seek a new home.
How the Holocaust affected Madeleine Albright
When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, her parents sought refuge in England. As Jews, her parents rightly feared Hitler’s advancement, and when the war appeared to be going in Germany’s favor, her parents converted to Roman Catholicism in 1941 and had their children baptized.
Her family began observing Catholic rites and holidays to such an extent that Albright was unaware of her Jewish lineage until Michael Dobbs, a reporter for the Washington Post, discovered her religious roots in 1997.
She would go on to learn that twenty-six family members, including three grandparents, had been killed in the Holocaust.
Albright remained part of the Roman Catholic Church until her marriage in 1959 to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, part of the media family empire that helped found both the Daily News in New York and Newsday on Long Island. She became Episcopalian like her new husband. The couple would go on to have three daughters before divorcing in 1983.
Madeleine remained a committed member of the Episcopalian church, regularly attending services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC. At the time of her death, she was serving on the Washington National Cathedral’s cathedral chapter after having previously served on the board of directors of the College of Preachers and chaired the board of the Beauvoir School, both of which are affiliated with the National Cathedral.
In her book The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, Albright wrote, “In looking at what was going on in the world, it was evident that religion and the force of religion and people’s interpretations of how they saw God really is very much a part of international affairs . . . . Rather than keeping religion and religious leaders out of things, we need their help.”
She spent much of her career putting that belief into practice, though her legacy in doing so remains a subject of debate.
“A face of US foreign policy”
Madeleine Albright began her rise to international notoriety as a counselor for President Jimmy Carter. She then served as a foreign policy advisor to Democratic presidential candidates Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton, the last of whom named her chief delegate to the United Nations after winning the 1992 presidential election.
She would later become the country’s first female secretary of state when Clinton elevated her to that role in 1997. In those roles, she became, as CNN’s Caroline Kelly called her, “a face of US foreign policy in the decade between the end of the Cold War and the war on terror.”
As many have noted, however, US foreign policy during that period was far from an unmitigated success, especially as it pertained to the succession of civil wars that dominated headlines for much of the decade.
Our failure to act sooner
The United States initially took a more hands-on approach to rendering aid alongside other UN countries in many of these regions. However, when eighteen American soldiers were killed in Somalia in 1993, with the body of one pilot then dragged through the streets of Mogadishu for all the world to see on television, President Clinton pared back US involvement in such UN missions.
That shift played out most significantly when America decided to maintain a more removed approach to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In the ensuing violence, upwards of one million people were killed.
The civil war in Bosnia around that same time played out in a similar fashion as people around the world gained a new understanding of the term “ethnic cleansing.”
The breakup of communist Yugoslavia resulted in a series of new, theoretically independent nations. President Slobodan Milosevic was less enthused by the new arrangement, though, and forces loyal to him tried to create their own state within Bosnia by killing or evicting the non-Serbian civilian population.
Albright would later write that “my deepest regret from my years in public service is the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt these crimes.”
That trend began to shift after Serbian forces massacred eight thousand Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. Albright helped lead the US to take a more involved approach, starting at the diplomatic level, where they helped broker the Dayton Peace Plan to stop the conflict.
However, when Milosevic attempted to do the same thing in Kosovo by exterminating the region’s majority Muslim population a few years later, then secretary of state Albright worked with colleagues to form a coalition to stop another genocide from taking place. NATO airstrikes helped stem the tide of the conflict and, in 2008, Kosovo was formally able to declare their independence from Serbia.
Albright and the defense of American values
Not everyone was a fan of Albright’s approach.
It has been said that her push for US intervention was “rooted more in American values than interests” and many took to calling these conflicts “Albright’s War.” For her part, though, she didn’t see the difference. Defending American values, as she understood them, was always in America’s best interests and part of the country’s responsibility to the larger world.
For her efforts, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by Barack Obama in 2012. At the ceremony, he noted that her “toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world.”
In recent days, Bill Clinton echoed those sentiments, noting that “few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served.”
And while her record is far from perfect, for better or worse she lived by the belief that “it took me a long time to find my voice. But having found it, I’m not going to shut up. I’m going to use it to the best of my ability in terms of making sure that democracy is our form of government and that those around the world that want to live in a democracy have a possibility to do so.”