Obituary

Childhood Trauma Taught Madeleine Albright to Stand Up to Despots

But Ukraine’s plight haunted her final days.

Madeleine Albright talks with reporter State Department 1997
Madeleine Albright talks with reporter State Department 1997
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks with a reporter during an interview in her office at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 3, 1997. Ruth Fremson/AP Photo
By , journalist who covered Madeleine Albright for decades as a correspondent at Newsweek and the PBS NewsHour.

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One month before former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s death on March 23, the New York Times published what would be her final essay, headlined “Putin Is Making a Historic Mistake.” In her piece, Albright looked back on a February 2000 meeting she had with Vladimir Putin, who at the time had just become Russia’s acting president after the sudden resignation of Boris Yeltsin. The Clinton administration wanted to size up the veteran KGB operative who would now lead a rival superpower. Albright found Putin “so cold as to be almost reptilian.”

The new Russian leader was still seething over the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup and the economic shambles of the Yeltsin decade. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness,” Albright jotted down on the flight home. Since then, her Times essay noted, Putin has been smothering democratic institutions at home and exerting economic and military pressure to reestablish Russian dominance in former Soviet satellites. “Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason,” she wrote.

On Feb. 24, the day after Albright’s column was published, Putin ordered Russian forces to assault cities and military installations across Ukraine.

One month before former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s death on March 23, the New York Times published what would be her final essay, headlined “Putin Is Making a Historic Mistake.” In her piece, Albright looked back on a February 2000 meeting she had with Vladimir Putin, who at the time had just become Russia’s acting president after the sudden resignation of Boris Yeltsin. The Clinton administration wanted to size up the veteran KGB operative who would now lead a rival superpower. Albright found Putin “so cold as to be almost reptilian.”

The new Russian leader was still seething over the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup and the economic shambles of the Yeltsin decade. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness,” Albright jotted down on the flight home. Since then, her Times essay noted, Putin has been smothering democratic institutions at home and exerting economic and military pressure to reestablish Russian dominance in former Soviet satellites. “Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason,” she wrote.

On Feb. 24, the day after Albright’s column was published, Putin ordered Russian forces to assault cities and military installations across Ukraine.


U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shakes hands with Russian acting President Vladimir Putin in 2000.

Albright, then secretary of state, shakes hands with Russian acting President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Kremlin on Feb. 2, 2000. Mikhail Metzel/AP

Albright’s keen instinct for gauging authoritarians—and understanding the threat they pose—was honed in early childhood. She was born in 1937 to Jewish parents, Josef and Anna Korbel, in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Two years later, when Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on the heels of the infamous Munich Agreement—according to which Britain and France allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland border regions of Czechoslovakia—her diplomat father managed to get himself posted to the Czechoslovak Embassy in London and arranged to have the entire family converted to Catholicism.

A decade later, Korbel was serving as Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia when a Soviet-backed coup by communists at home drove the family to flee again, this time to the United States, where Korbel sought and won political asylum so he wouldn’t be arrested for his pro-democratic views.

The family settled in the safety of Denver where Korbel taught international politics, and 11-year-old Madeleine acclimated to a new country and culture. Among other things, she compiled a stellar academic record, which eventually eased her admission to Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Her early brushes with authoritarian threats instilled a passion for democracy that animated her entire public life. “Her family was run out of Czechoslovakia twice. First by Hitler and then by Stalin,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton remarked the day after her death. “She did not like authoritarian government. She didn’t like dictators. She didn’t like people who were callous about human life, and it forged her whole view of the world for the rest of her life.”

That Albright would rise to become America’s first female secretary of state was not obvious in her college years. She aspired to be a journalist and to marry her handsome fiance, reporter Joseph Albright, the scion of a newspaper empire that included the New York Daily News, Long Island’s Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune.

Madeleine Albright newspaper staff Wesley College 1958

Albright with newspaper staff at Wellesley College in 1958. Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma/Getty Images

Madeleine and Joseph married days after her Wellesley graduation. But Madeleine’s journalistic dreams were dashed when nepotism concerns kept her from being hired at the Chicago Sun-Times, where her husband worked. She got hired at the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a photo editor’s assistant and then in the public relations department, where her job was to find “fillers” that could be dropped in at the end of newspaper columns. One of her “gems,” as she later recalled in her memoir, was: “Ostriches are voiceless, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” She felt at a loss. In an essay she wrote in 1961, while still in her early 20s and a new mother to twins, she said, “Two years after finishing with college, I am obsolete.” As she told a radio host in a 2020 interview, “All of a sudden these things that I thought I was going to be able to do, I couldn’t do.”

Her persistence and drive saved her. While keeping vigil in a New York hospital over her twins, who were born prematurely, Albright decided to make the best of her enforced confinement and take an intensive Russian language course.

Joseph, meanwhile, was being groomed for top management in the family newspaper chain, which caused the couple to move back and forth between Washington and New York. During a 1962 stint in Washington, Madeleine began graduate work at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies in hopes of becoming a professor like her father. When the family returned to New York for Joseph to take an editorship at Long Island Newsday, she transferred her graduate work to Columbia University.

Eastern Europe was her passion, and Columbia’s faculty included noted experts in communist studies. She was especially dazzled by a young former professor from Harvard University, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

But when the family returned to Washington in 1968, Albright still didn’t see a professional path for herself in her chosen field. So, while pursuing her Ph.D.—and caring for three daughters at this point—she began raising money for an aspiring 1972 Democratic presidential hopeful, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. Albright turned out to have a knack for raising money and for networking.

In 1976, she finally got her Ph.D. from Columbia. With her credentials and confidence boosted, she applied to be Muskie’s chief legislative assistant. She got the post, her first job in her chosen field, at the age of 39.


Democrat Jimmy Carter’s presidential election victory in November 1976 opened another door for Albright when Brzezinski, her former Columbia professor, became Carter’s national security advisor and hired her to handle the National Security Council’s congressional relations. Albright had finally entered the inner circle of the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy establishment, albeit by an unconventional path—one that didn’t include the type of resume-building, lower-level policy jobs normally filled by young national security professionals, male and female.

Yet Albright had personal and political talents that many of her peers lacked: Most significantly, she had an ability to read people, relate to them, and cajole them when needed. She rode out the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s teaching at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where some faculty and administrators looked down on her as a so-called political hire who hadn’t published original work. But her courses proved a magnet for students, who for several years voted her the most outstanding professor on campus.

Albright also accepted with relish a nonacademic position to encourage more young women to enter the foreign-policy field. She urged them to be more assertive than she had been at their age. “Speak up!” she urged her students. “Interrupt.”

But her idyllic life was shattered in January 1982 when Joseph Albright announced to her one night that, as she remembered it, “This marriage is dead and I am in love with someone else.” They were divorced within a year. Madeleine was devastated, but she had one compensation: Divorce left her a wealthy woman, with a Georgetown house and large farm in the Virginia countryside.

Albright deepened her involvement in electoral politics. Her elegant Georgetown home became a favorite gathering place for out-of-power Democrats in the 1980s. The connections she made led her to become a foreign-policy campaign advisor to vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and to Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.

While advising Dukakis, Albright met then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and she wrote a letter recommending him for membership in the influential Council of Foreign Relations in New York. When Clinton won the White House in 1992, he chose Albright to head his National Security Council transition team, then named her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.


Madeleine Albright and Russia's Sergei Lavrov in 1994

Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and then-Russian U.N. Ambassador Sergey Lavrov talk in the Security Council chamber in New York before a vote on Sept. 29, 1994. MARK D. PHILLIPS/AFP via Getty Images

At the United Nations, Albright emerged as a forceful and media-savvy advocate for using U.S. and NATO muscle to protect vulnerable people against violence or oppression—in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (She bitterly regretted the U.S. failure to intervene to prevent the 1994 slaughter of some 500,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi tribe by rival Hutus.) Her main focus continued to be on using American power to restrain dictators and autocrats.

“My mindset is Munich; most of my generation’s is Vietnam,” she explained in a 1996 interview, harkening back to her family’s experience. “I saw what happened when a dictator was allowed to take over a piece of a country, and the country went down the tubes. And I saw the opposite during the war when America joined the fight. For me, America is really, truly the indispensable nation.”

Her push for the United States to act as the “indispensable nation”—to protect defenseless civilians in global hot spots—frequently put her at odds with Anthony Lake, Clinton’s first national security advisor; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell; and her direct boss, Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Her advocacy of U.S. intervention abroad was also out of step with the prevailing mood in the country. Clinton was the first post-Cold War president, and the American public was looking for a “peace dividend.” Clinton had campaigned on the message, as a campaign advisor put it, that “it’s the economy, stupid,” and had chosen the lawyerly Christopher as secretary of state partly to keep his new administration out of military entanglements. Yet Albright frequently prevailed.

Above all, she sought to safeguard the fortunes of her native Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. She was instrumental in NATO’s 1999 admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into the alliance, which would become a gnawing source of resentment for Putin.

Two decades later, as Albright’s battle with cancer entered its final weeks, Clinton called her to ask about her health. As he recalled it, Albright batted away his medical questions, saying, “what’s going to happen is going to happen. What we should be thinking about is the world we’d like to leave to our grandchildren.”

“She spent the whole rest of the time talking about Ukraine,” Clinton recalled. “It was like the replay of a bad movie for her, as well as a very modern tragedy.”

Despite her fervent efforts, it was the story of her life.

Margaret Warner is an award-winning journalist, writer, and expert in U.S. foreign policy. She covered Madeleine Albright for decades as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine and the PBS NewsHour, most recently as the NewsHour’s chief global affairs correspondent. She has lectured and taught college graduate and undergraduate students, including serving a term as a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

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