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Only in America—the astounding life of Madeleine Albright, 1937–2022

R. Albert Mohler Jr. | She fled the Nazis, fled the Soviets, came to America, and became secretary of state


Madeleine Albright during her tenure as secretary of state in 1997 Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Only in America—the astounding life of Madeleine Albright, 1937–2022

What pin is she wearing today? During tumultuous years in global affairs, diplomats around the world looked to see what pin Madeleine Albright was wearing as she came into a meeting. Albright, at the time the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government, was known for wearing a bejeweled pin or broach on her lapel or dress. It was meant to send a signal.

Albright, who died Wednesday of cancer at age 84, lived one of the great lives of the 20th century. Born in Prague in 1937, Marie Jana Korbelová entered an extremely dangerous world. Her father, Josef Korbel, was an important diplomat in the service of what was then known as Czechoslovakia. But, in 1939, that nation would suffer a devastating invasion by Nazi Germany, setting the stage for World War II. Young Marie Jana’s Jewish parents took the family to London, where they experienced the full onslaught of the Nazi bombing campaign known as “The Blitz.” The couple also converted to Catholicism. It would be several decades later that Albright would be told of her Jewish ancestry—and of the fact that three of her grandparents had perished in the Holocaust.

After the war, the family moved back to Prague, where Josef rejoined the diplomatic corps. But their return turned ominous when it was clear that the Soviet Union would take control of Czechoslovakia. Unwilling for their daughter to be indoctrinated into communism, the Josef sent young Marie Jana to school in Switzerland, where she changed her name to Madeleine. Eventually, the entire family would have to flee the Soviets, and the Czech diplomat brought his family to the United States, where they received political asylum. Madeleine would become an American citizen in 1957.

Her father took a teaching position at the University of Denver. He would eventually become dean, and the university’s school of international relations now bears his name. In one of the strange twists of American history, Josef Korbel would become a mentor to Condoleezza Rice, who would later serve as national security adviser to President George W. Bush and secretary of state.

Madeleine married, took the name Albright, and would go on to earn a doctorate at Columbia University. Foreign affairs was the family business. Albright taught international relations at Georgetown University, entered government service, and would eventually serve on the staff of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish immigrant who had become President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and was a famous hard-liner against the Communists.

Albright was known for her smile, her toughness, and for those pins. Some observers noted that if the secretary of state showed up wearing a certain jeweled American eagle, look out.

Fast-forward to the presidency of Bill Clinton, who appointed Albright as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She raised international outrage about the massacres taking place in Rwanda, represented U.S. interests, and was credited with organizing a leadership coup that removed UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was seen as ineffective and suspected of worse.

During Clinton’s second term, Albright would make history as she became the first woman to serve as secretary of state. Since she was not a natural-born U.S. citizen, she was not in the line of presidential succession. Nevertheless, she was in the line of fire during her years of international testing.

Albright was an advocate for an assertive U.S. foreign policy. Her first-hand experience of fleeing Nazi and Soviet tyranny led her to advocate for the use of U.S. military force around the world. At one point, she turned to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell and asked, “What’s the point of you having this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?” The tension in the relationship was clear, but an enduring friendship would emerge. Powell would later also serve as secretary of state.

As secretary of state, Albright would usually be surrounded on public occasions by a retinue of (mostly male) staffers. The press would refer to U.S. foreign policy leadership at the time as “Madeleine and her boys.”

Albright was known for her smile, her toughness, and for those pins. Some observers noted that if the secretary of state showed up wearing a certain jeweled American eagle, look out.

In politics, she was a Democrat, and she was often described as a feminist. She was certainly, in my view, far too liberal on a host of issues. The fact that her political allies included Bill and Hillary Clinton simply speaks for itself. I could never have voted for the candidates that Albright served. My politics are not her politics, to say the least.

But the death of Madeleine Albright reminds us of a basic truth about the United States. Just think of that little girl who, with her family, had to flee the Nazis and the Soviets and came to the United States in search of freedom. Think of that little girl, having faced two of the worst tyrannies on earth, who would later become secretary of state of the United States and stare down oppressor nations with the full force of American power. What a country.


R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also president of the Evangelical Theological Society and host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.

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