An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Madeline Albright—First Female Secretary of State.

Oct 18, 2018 by

Madeline Albright

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright apparently was not born in theUnited States. What do we know about her background?

Marie Jana Korbelova was born on May 15, 1937, in the city of Prague (at that time the capital of a country known as Czechoslovakia). Her father held a diplomatic position with the Czech government, serving as an attaché in that nation’s embassy in Belgrade.

One year after her birth, Adolf Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia, and her father felt that he could not safely return to their homeland. For that reason, he decided to relocate his family to London, where he went to work for the exiled Czech government. Once the war ended, the ousted Czech leaders returned to their liberated homeland. Offered a position in the new government, her father chose to move the family back to Czechoslovakia as well. Soon thereafter, he accepted an appointment as his nation’s ambassador to Yugoslavia. He did not hold that position for long, however.

In 1948, the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia managed to seizecontrol of the government, and he decided that he could no longer serve as arepresentative of his nation. Once again, he moved his family to London, butafter accepting a position with the United Nations he soon relocated them toNew York City. By the age of eleven, then, Marie Jana Korbelova had become awell-traveled individual.

2. She apparently was well educated and actually holds a doctorate.Tell us about her educational background.

When her father had received his appointment as the Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia, he had decided that she should not go to a school in that country, fearing that the teachers there would bring a communist perspective into their classrooms.

Instead, he first arranged for a private tutor for her, and then sent her to a private school for girls in Switzerland. While there, she decided to change her name from Marie to Madeline. After her family moved to the United States, her father received an appointment as a professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. Madeline went to high school in the Denver suburb of Cherry Hills, and then attended Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. During a summer vacation, she met Joseph Albright, and the two decided to wed as soon as she graduated from college. When Newsday magazine hired her husband in 1960, Madeline moved with him to New York City, and began to study Russian at Hofstra University.

In 1962, they moved to Washington DC, and while there she tookclasses at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced InternationalStudies. Moving back to New York City in 1963, Madeline began to take classesat Columbia University. Eventually, she would earn both an MA and a Ph.D. inPolitical Science from that institution.

3. She was apparently a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Whatdo you see as her accomplishments in that post?

When Bill Clinton became president of the United States, he asked a number of individuals to serve on his transition team. Because of her expertise in Political Science, Madeline Albright became his choice to help him become familiar with the workings of the National Security Council. Impressed with her work, Clinton then asked her to serve his administration as its Ambassador to the United Nations. Appointed to that post in 1993, she would serve in that capacity until 1996.

As befitting a world agency, the United Nations dealt with a number of crises during those years, and played a role in many of them. While she had some successes, most historians point to her involvement in the debate over Rwanda as her most lasting legacy. Although she eventually condemned the genocide taking place there in the strongest possible terms, she did not immediately embrace that point of view.

Albright herself later called this delay on her part as her biggest regret as the Ambassador to the United Nations.

4. Apparently she held a number of positions which made her uniquely qualified to serve as Secretary of State. Can you tell us about a few of them?

Obviously, her service as the ambassador to the United Nations stands out on her resume as the most prominent qualification for becoming the Secretary of State. Prior to holding that post, however, she had held other positions that also helped shape Clinton’s decision to make her Secretary of State.

First, during the Carter presidency, she had served as the liaison between the Executive and Legislative branches.

Second, after Carter lost his bid for reelection, she became aprofessor at Georgetown University, specializing in Eastern European studies.And third, throughout the 1980s, she gave leaders of the Democratic Partyadvice on foreign affairs. These factors, combined with her service as the Ambassador of the United Nations, made it an easy decision for Bill Clinton toappoint her as his Secretary of State in 1996.

5. Overall, as secretary of state, how long did she serve, and as a historian, what would you say were her accomplishments?

Albright would serve as Clinton’s Secretary of State from her confirmation in 1996 until Clinton left office in January of 2001. For many historians, her crowning achievement came in 1999 when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia attempted to prevent the province of Kosovo from achieving independence. Believing that the Yugoslav action amounted to ethnic cleansing, Albright and Clinton joined forces to present a unified administration front in its demand that Yugoslavia should withdraw its military forces from Kosovo.

When Yugoslavia refused, the administration convinced our alliesin the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to join in air strikes on thatnation. This show of force succeeded in getting Yugoslavia to the bargainingtable, and eventually that nation did indeed pull its troops out of Kosovo. Whileother initiatives during her term as Secretary State partially or whollyfailed, this Albright-backed policy succeeded admirably.

6. Fittingly she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (something I know little about: could you enlighten us)?

In 1945, President Harry Truman had created an award to recognize exemplary service that civilians had given the nation during World War II. His successors continued the tradition, with President John F. Kennedy renaming it the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Specifically, the award recognizes “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” In April of2012, President Barack Obama announced that he would give her that award because of her work to promote democracy throughout the course of her career.

7. What have I neglected to ask?

While serving as Secretary of State in 1997, a report in the Washington Post brought something to her attention that she had never known: she had been born a Jew. It turned out that her parents were Jewish, but while living in London in 1941 they had decided to convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Albright herself would change her religious affiliation at the time of her wedding, becoming an Episcopalian.

She thus found the Washington Post report a “major surprise.” Upon further investigation, it turned out that 12 of her relatives died in the Holocaust, a total that included three of her four grandparents. It is thus fitting that Albright devoted her career to the cause of human rights, considering how her family had been denied the most basic human right—life itself.

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