Madeleine Albright — a child refugee who fled Nazis then rose to become the first female US secretary of state — died Wednesday of cancer, her family said. She was 84.
“We are heartbroken to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, the 64th Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that position, passed away earlier today,” her family said in a statement.
“She was surrounded by family and friends. We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend.”
Albright was a central figure in President Bill Clinton’s administration, known as a blunt and brilliant analyst of world affairs who shattered the political glass ceiling.
She was named US ambassador to the United Nations when Clinton first took office in 1993 before becoming America’s top diplomat from 1997 to 2001. At the time, she was the highest-ranking woman in the history of US government.
As secretary of state, Albright actively promoted the expansion of NATO and military intervention in Kosovo.
“The impact that she has had on this building is felt every single day in just about every single corridor,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday.
“She was a trailblazer as the first female secretary of state and quite literally opened doors for a large element of our workforce.”
Born in Prague on May 15, 1937, Albright’s father was a Jewish diplomat who fled Czechoslovakia with the family as Nazis invaded the country in 1939. They escaped to the UK and converted to Catholicism to avoid persecution.
But Albright, who came to the US as a refugee in 1948, didn’t learn about her Jewish heritage until after she was sworn in as Secretary of State in 1997.
In an interview from February that year, she said that her family had kept her background a secret — and that three of her grandparents had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Though she understood the horrors of World War II, she was not a dove, and played a leading role in pressing the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo.
She later criticized former President George W. Bush for using “the shock of force” rather than alliances with Arab leaders to foster diplomacy.
She also toed a hard line on Cuba, famously calling the Cuban shootdown of a civilian plane a move made with “cowardice,” not “cojones.”
Albright remained outspoken after leaving office, dropping quotable pearls of wisdom such as: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
And she advised women “to act in a more confident manner” and “to ask questions when they occur and don’t wait to ask.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama gave Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying she was an inspiration to all Americans.
On Wednesday, Bush called her passing a great loss for Americans.
“Laura and I are heartbroken by the news of Madeleine Albright’s death,” said the former president. “She lived out the American dream and helped others realize it…. She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world.”
“I respect her love of country and public service, and Laura and I are grateful to have called Madeleine Albright our friend.”
President Biden, who was en route to Europe, had been informed of her passing, Price said.
Albright attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, graduating with honors in 1959, and got a doctorate from Columbia University. She could speak six languages, including Czech, French, Polish, Russian and English.
Albright had three daughters with her newspaper heir husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright. They were married for more than 20 years before divorcing in 1982.
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