“If you are too comfortable, it is time to move on. Terrified of what is next? You are on the right track.”
– Susan Fales-Hill
This Czech woman likely gained the most political power a Czech has ever had. As a part of the Democratic party in the United states, she served as the 20th United States Ambassador to the United Nations and 64th United States Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, being the first woman to ever achieve this position. She clearly made the most out of her humble beginnings, so much so that many often forget that those beginnings took place in a small, landlocked country in central Europe.
Madeleine Albright’s life begun in a Jewish family in 1937 in Smíchov, a district of Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia. Despite the Jewish heritage of her family, she was brought up as a Christian. However, that would not work as an excuse to the Nazi threat, so her family had to flee their homeland. Luckily, her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czechoslovakian diplomat, who was able to sort out a move of the family to the United Kingdom. The family had to suffer through the London bombings in their basement flat, but they survived the war and moved back to Czechoslovakia after the end of it. However, Madeleine’s father, who was heavily engaged in fighting Nazi Germany from London would soon become the enemy of the state once again, as the communists managed to forcibly take the reigns of the country. Thus, the family had to swiftly relocate once again, this time to the United States. There, the family did not have much money to work with, but still managed to secure good education for their bright-minded young daughter Madeleine. Her studies ended with a PhD at the Columbia University, writing her master’s thesis on the Soviet diplomatic corps and her doctoral dissertation on the role of journalists in the Prague Spring of 1968.
A that point, she was already married to her former husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, who was a Chicago-born journalist from an influential American family. With him, she brought up their three daughters. Meanwhile, her political career started with a job for senator Edmund Muskie. With these two years of experience, her thesis consultant from 1976, Zbigniew Brzezinski, invited her to join him in working at the White House under the Jimmy Carter administration. There, she worked in the West Wing as the National Security Council’s congressional liaison. As a democrat, she then had to wait for 12 years for a new democratic President to enter the White House and continue on her career path. However as Bill Clinton took the office in 1992, her opportunity had come and in January of the next year, she seized it, when the President nominated her to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, which was her first diplomatic posting.
There, she unfortunately contributed to the slow reaction of the international community to the Rwanda genocide, which she holds in her memories as her deepest regret from her years in public service. “It was a very, very difficult time, and the situation was unclear. You know, in retrospect, it all looks very clear. But when you were [there] at the time, it was unclear about what was happening in Rwanda.” she remarked in PBS documentary Ghosts of Rwanda. However, she had little freedom to decide under U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whom she then decided to overthrow using the veto of the United States, which made Boutros-Ghali the only U.N. Secretary-General to ever be denied a second term. She also famously used the line “This is not cojones. This is cowardice.” when she commented on the Cuban military shooting down two small civilian aircraft over international waters in 1996. According to her coworkers from the first Clinton administration, all this strengthened Albright’s hand in the competition to be Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration.
Albright took office as the 64th U.S. Secretary of State on January 23, 1997, becoming the first female U.S. Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government at the time of her appointment. Although that would normally mean she would be 4th in line for the U.S. Presidency in case of an Emergency , with her not being a natural-born citizen of the U.S., she was not eligible as a U.S. Presidential successor at the time and was excluded from nuclear contingency plans. Nevertheless, she was able to heavily influence U.S. foreign policy, having big impacts on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hong Kong, Kenya, North Korea and the Middle East. She was also a big influence when it came to the arguably early adoption of former communist countries, like the Czech Republic, into NATO.
Since then, she held a number of public positions, received countless honorary degrees and prizes and even wrote many books, with the most famous one being Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box from 2009. Regardless of your political affiliation as a reader, it is probably safe to say that by now, anyone is able to recognize that this woman achieved a lot. And it seems like even more once we are reminded that she came to the U.S. as a ‘nobody’. She remains an inspiration to women across the world, still active despite her age.