Foreign Policy

RIP Madeleine Albright, Who Escaped Both Fascism and Communism as a Child

The former secretary of state died today at the age of 84 after a long and complicated career in U.S. foreign policy.


Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of state, died today at the age of 84. A longtime professor at Georgetown University and major adviser to Democratic politicians on foreign policy, Albright worked for nearly four decades in the academic and professional realms of international relations.

Originally from Czechoslovakia, Albright's family was forced to flee both fascism and communism before she turned 12. Her father's ties to the Czech democrats forced the family into exile following the 1938 Munich Agreement and Adolf Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia. They spent 10 days in hiding before leaving for Great Britain.

After working in Britain for the Czechoslovak government in exile, Albright's father eventually brought the family back to Prague once the war ended—only to leave again in 1948. An anti-communist, he was forced to resign from his government post after the Communist Party rose to power in Czechoslovakia.

Albright and her family eventually secured political asylum in the United States on the basis of her father's fear of being persecuted for his "faithful adherence to the ideals of democracy," as he put it. "Becoming a U.S. citizen is the most important thing that ever happened to me," Albright wrote in 2016. "Like all refugees, I shared a hope to live a safe life with dignity and a chance to give back to my new country."

Albright would inherit her father's distaste for authoritarianism of many forms, and her background as a refugee of the Eastern Bloc shaped her diplomatic efforts in the region following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. She held positions in some of America's highest offices of security and diplomacy, serving on the National Security Council, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and eventually as secretary of state. In her many writings and speeches, she frequently warned against contempt in politics, aggression toward others, and demagoguery.

Like many who hold such powerful positions in government, her tenure as secretary of state was not free of controversy. Albright was a proponent of liberal internationalism and believed the U.S. was an "indispensable nation," justified to throw military force and harsh tactics behind diplomacy. Those beliefs undergirded her support for sanctions on Iraq—asked in 2001 about the reported half-million Iraqi children who had died as a result of American sanctions, she replied that "the price is worth it." She favored an active U.S. foreign policy and would eventually support American involvement in the Iraq War.

Her instincts played to interventionist tendencies in Washington, with implications that shape foreign policy debates to this day. "What's the use of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" she once asked Secretary of State Colin Powell while debating the authorization of NATO airstrikes on Bosnia in 1993. She vociferously supported NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, which transformed the alliance's prerogative from defensive actions into an offensive mission.

Still, Albright recorded a number of positive and truly impressive diplomatic milestones. Between 1997 and 2000, she engaged in a series of high-level exchanges with Iranian officials that would lead to the most significant (albeit fleeting) episode of detente between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She was the first U.S. secretary of state to visit North Korea. She grappled assuredly with scores of world leaders, including autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Albright's brand of liberal internationalism may not sit well with those who favor a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy. But her respect for human freedom is worth commemorating in the same breath as many of her diplomatic achievements, a value of a woman who rose to a position of immense power in the U.S. after fleeing two evil ideologies. "The magic of America is that we're a free and open society with a mixed population," Albright once said. "Part of our security is our freedom."