March 4, 2024

First female U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dies at 84

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry watches former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright give remarks at the Truman Foundation Fortieth Anniversary Event at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. on June 22, 2016. [State Department photo/
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry watches former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright give remarks at the Truman Foundation Fortieth Anniversary Event at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. on June 22, 2016. [State Department photo/

Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright died of cancer on Wednesday at the age of 84, her family said in a statement.

“We are heartbroken to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright, the 64th U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that position, passed away earlier today,” the family wrote. “The cause was cancer. She was surrounded by family and friends. We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend.”

Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelová and immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia with her family in 1948. She earned a PhD from Columbia University in 1975, worked for former Senator Edmund Muskie and later with Zbigniew Brzezinski on the U.S. National Security Council during the Carter administration. She later served in the administration of President Bill Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and then as Secretary of State. President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Her family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was five years old. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.

Her family, which was original Jewish before it converted to Roman catholicism when she was five years old, described her as “a tireless champion of democracy and human rights” who was at the time of her death a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

She was also chair of Albright Stonebridge Group of Dentos Global Advisors, chair of Albright Capital Management, president of Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, chair of the National Democratic Institute, chair of the U.S. Policy Board, and an author.

“She founded the Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College, served a lifetime trustee of The Aspen Institute, and was a member of the chapter of the Washington National Cathedral,” the family added.

President Joe Biden: ‘Madeleine Albright was a force’

Madeleine Albright was a force. Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history.

As a young girl, she found a home in the United States—after her family fled their home country of Czechoslovakia during World War II, and the Iron Curtain came down across Central and Eastern Europe. Her father, a diplomat, was marked for death by the Soviet regime. She spent the rest of her days defending freedom around the world and lifting up those who suffered under repression.

She was an immigrant fleeing persecution. A refugee in need of safe haven. And like so many before her—and after—she was proudly American.

To make this country that she loved even better—she defied convention and broke barriers again and again.  As the devoted mother of three beloved daughters, she worked tirelessly raising them while earned her doctorate degree and started her career.  She took her talents first to the Senate as a staffer for Senator Edmund Muskie, followed by the National Security Council under President Carter. And then to the United Nations where she served as U.S. Ambassador, and ultimately, made history as our first woman Secretary of State, appointed by President Clinton.

A scholar, teacher, bestselling author, and later accomplished businesswoman, Secretary Albright continued to advise presidents and members of Congress with matchless skill and diplomatic acumen.  In every role, she used her fierce intellect and sharp wit—and often her unmatched collection of pins—to advance America’s national security and promote peace around the world. America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights than Secretary Albright, who knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy.

Working with Secretary Albright during the 1990s was among the highlights of my career in the United States Senate during my tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee. As the world redefined itself in the wake of the Cold War, we were partners and friends working to welcome newly liberated democracies into NATO and confront the horrors of genocide in the Balkans.

When I think of Madeleine, I will always remember her fervent faith that “America is the indispensable nation.”

In the years after she left government, Secretary Albright never stepped away from that belief.  As the Chairman of the National Democratic Institute for over two decades, and through other organizations she advised, she continued to champion democratic principles as vitally important to America’s interests in freedom, prosperity and security.

She continued to mentor and nurture new generations of foreign policy experts at Georgetown University, the Korbel Center for International Studies at the University of Denver, named after her father, and beyond.  As always, she shared her insight and wisdom widely, but she was especially dedicated to supporting the next generation of women leaders, including through the establishment of the Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College.

Madeleine was always a force for goodness, grace, and decency—and for freedom.

Jill and I will miss her dearly and send our love and prayers to her daughters, Alice, Anne and Katie, her sister Kathy, her brother John, her six grandchildren, and her nephews and grandniece.

Blinken: Madeleine K. Albright was a brilliant diplomat, a visionary leader, a courageous trailblazer

Madeleine Albright was a brilliant diplomat, a visionary leader, a courageous trailblazer, a dedicated mentor, and a great and good person who loved the United States deeply and devoted her life to serving it. She was also a wonderful friend to many, including me. I’ll miss her very much.

Having arrived here as a refugee at age 11, she never forgot the generosity that America extended to her family when they needed it most. Having seen America at its best, she pushed relentlessly for us to live up to our role as a moral beacon and defender of freedom. And having experienced the horrors of war firsthand – fleeing Czechoslovakia after the Nazis invaded, then hiding in shelters as German bombs fell on London – she believed that the United States must respond forcefully to dictators and tyrants. She created the Community of Democracies, a coalition of countries that defends democratic values around the world. And thanks in no small part to her, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, and the United States defended ethnic Albanians in Kosovo against Serbian aggression. Today, there’s a square and a street in Kosovo named for Madeline, and a statue of her stands in the capital.

When she was nominated to be Secretary of State, some openly questioned whether a woman could go toe-to-toe with world leaders. Madeleine quickly quashed those misguided doubts. There was simply no doubt that, in any room, she was as tough as anyone and often tougher. That said, it wasn’t always easy. She described walking into her first meeting of the UN Security Council as the U.S. ambassador: “15 seats and 14 men, all looking at me.” But when she saw the plaque at her seat that read THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, her nerves vanished: “I thought, if I do not speak today, the voice of the United States will not be heard. When I finally did speak, it was the first time that I represented the country of my naturalization, the place where I belonged.”

Madeleine mentored a generation of diplomats and national security experts. I’m one of many who benefited from her wisdom and encouragement. And in her post-State career, she dedicated herself to teaching, continuing to invest in our future diplomats and leaders.

After leaving the State Department, when asked if she was relieved not to be dealing with crises around the world, she’d say simply, “I miss it every day.” She loved this country. She loved this Department. And we loved her back.

To our very first Madam Secretary – thank you.

The World Madeleine Albright Worked to Build, by Samantha Power

I’m pained to write the words: Madeleine Albright—my friend and inspiration—is no longer with us. 

Madeleine’s ascension—from refugee to brilliant student to foreign policy scholar to trusted White House aide to first woman Secretary of State—was astronomic. She broke the gravity that had so long held women from earning top foreign policy jobs, and stared down any man who tried to bully her, rattle her, or suggest she didn’t belong in the room—even when she was the only woman in the room. But she also was rare in admitting her vulnerabilities and sensitivities, making it possible for the generations who followed her to do the same.

Her tenure as Secretary of State wasn’t just historic, it was revolutionary. Rather than follow in the footsteps of the many quiet patricians who preceded her, Madeline understood that a successful foreign policy required winning hearts and minds at home, not just abroad. She understood fully the need to translate the arcane protocol of global diplomacy into concepts any American could understand—to translate the pleas of Bosnians, Haitians, Kosovars, and others in dire need into appeals that would touch the American soul. And she grasped the power of eyewitness testimony to make meaning out of crimes that are too ghastly or overwhelming to countenance. After the massacre in Srebrenica of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys, she didn’t just present photo evidence of mass graves to the United Nations; she shared the firsthand testimony of a man who had survived the genocide by hiding among the dead. 

Like all the world’s best diplomats, she knew when to speak out and when to deploy the power of silence and symbolism. In what became a defining trademark of her tenure, she wore brooches that matched her mood and spoke to the world, her jewelry serving as a masterclass in diplomatic messaging. When Slobodon Milsovic called her a “goat,” she didn’t dignify his insult with words, she reclaimed it by adorning a pin she received as a gift from the Naval Academy of their mascot, Bill the Goat. 

She also recognized the tremendous role American assistance could play in the world—that American foreign policy “should be shaped not only by what we are against, but also by what we are for.” To her this Agency’s work always represented America’s affirmative vision for the globe, and a chance to live up to our most cherished principles on the world stage. When I was nominated to become Administrator, she called me with at least a half-dozen ideas on policies and reforms she thought we should pursue, many of which are now in train.

Those of us working in foreign policy today—men and women—we’re all just following in Madeleine’s footsteps. She showed us how it could be done. She showed us just how powerful a combination a sharp tongue and an even sharper mind could be. She demonstrated the moral steel necessary to stand up for our values. And she tirelessly mentored so many down the trail that she blazed. 

I am shattered by the prospect of a world without her. But I remain inspired by the world she worked to build, one where all people live in dignity and in hope. I will continue to join USAID in fighting for that world—for many reasons, but also for Madeleine. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had a profound respect for the men and women who serve in the U.S. military

The Department of Defense stands together in mourning the passing of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She was a titan, a pioneer, and an eloquent and effective champion of American diplomacy and global leadership. I was proud to call her a colleague and a friend. 

Secretary Albright had a profound respect for the men and women who serve in the U.S. military, and throughout her distinguished career as a scholar and public servant, she understood the credibility and power that the American military puts behind American diplomacy. She admired service members for their eagerness to stand up for freedom, democracy, and American values—the causes that she fought for and embodied throughout her historic, path-blazing career. 

America’s first woman Secretary of State famously called the United States the “indispensable nation,” and she always understood the importance of American leadership. Secretary Albright was a proud daughter of Central Europe, from a family that fled first the horrors of World War II and then the terrors of Stalinism. It is not lost on me that I learned of her passing while traveling with President Biden to Europe to bolster NATO’s Eastern Flank against aggression. Just days before Putin started his war of choice against Ukraine, Secretary Albright wrote of the need to come together to defend “a world governed by the rule of law,” rather than “one answerable to no rules at all.” 

Secretary Albright dedicated her life to strengthening a rules-based international system that would uphold human rights, defend democracy, and prevent and halt atrocities against civilians. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State, she reinforced America’s alliances, advocated for America’s highest ideals, and staunchly supported U.S. military interventions to save innocents from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. 

Last year, I asked Secretary Albright to chair this Department’s Defense Policy Board because I wanted unflinching counsel from someone with deep insights into the global moment that we face. In November 2021, Secretary Albright was sworn in as the Board’s chair. I was honored and moved by her willingness to serve yet again and grateful for her expertise, humor, and wisdom. 

Madeleine Albright’s lifetime of service will shine bright as an inspiration for all who believe that American values must be central to American statecraft. On behalf of the Department of Defense, I send deepest condolences to Secretary Albright’s family and loved ones. 

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session on Ukraine: Secretary Albright was a mentor

Before I begin, I want to express my great sorrow at learning that former Secretary of State and former USUN Ambassador Madeleine Albright has passed away. Secretary Albright was a mentor. She was my boss, both as Secretary of State; I worked with her in Georgetown. She was a colleague, and she was a friend over several decades. She was a trailblazer and a luminary, and she was the first woman to serve as Secretary of State. She left an indelible mark on the world and on the United Nations. Our country and our United Nations are stronger for her service. I always would say – she used to talk about the pins she wore – I always wore her on my shoulder. 

Her story – a story of fleeing Czechoslovakia as a refugee at a young age and rising in the highest levels of the U.S. government – has echoed in my mind amid the current crisis in Ukraine. I hope to do justice for her memory today. I’m sure that we will have an opportunity to remember Secretary Albright and honor her many contributions in the days ahead. But today, I grieve her as my friend and extend my condolences to her family. 

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