Madeleine Albright, who fled the Nazis as a child in her native Czechoslovakia during World War II then rose to become the first female U.S. secretary of state died on Wednesday at the age of 84.
Her family announced her death on Twitter and said she had died of cancer.
— Madeleine Albright (@madeleine) March 23, 2022
Albright served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993-1997 in U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. He then nominated her to become the first female secretary of state and she served in that role from 1997-2001.
“Madeleine Albright was a force. She defied convention and broke barriers again and again,” U.S. President Joe Biden said. He directed U.S. flags be flown at half-staff at the White House and government buildings, including embassies, until March 27.
She was a tough-talking diplomat in an administration that hesitated to involve itself in the two biggest foreign policy crises of the 1990s – the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
She once upset a Pentagon chief by asking why the military maintained more than 1 million men and women under arms if they never used them.
The plain-spoken Albright took a tough line on a 1996 incident where Cuban jet fighters downed two unarmed U.S.-based planes, saying: “This is not cojones, this is cowardice.”
While at the United Nations, where Security Council members stood in silence on Wednesday to honor her memory, she pressed for a tougher line against the Serbs in Bosnia after Bosnian Serb military forces laid siege to the capital Sarajevo.
During Clinton’s first term, many of his administration’s top foreign policy experts did not want to get involved because they vividly remembered how the United States became bogged down in Vietnam.
In 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers overran three Moslem enclaves, Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa, and massacred more than 8,000 people.
The United States responded by working with NATO on airstrikes that forced an end to the war but only after it had been going on for three years.
Albright‘s experience as a refugee prompted her to push for the United States to use its superpower clout. She wanted a “muscular internationalism,” said James O’Brien, a senior adviser to Albright during the Bosnian war.
Early in the Clinton administration, while she unsuccessfully advocated for a quicker, stronger response in Bosnia, Albright backed a U.N. war crimes tribunal that eventually put the architects of that war, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders, in jail, O’Brien said.
The painful lessons learned in Rwanda and Bosnia served the United States well in Kosovo, when Washington saw the more powerful Serbs begin a program of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians. NATO responded with an 11-week campaign of air strikes in 1999 that extended to Belgrade.
Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said on Wednesday she was “deeply shocked by the loss of Kosovo’s great friend,” adding that the intervention “gave us hope, when we did not have it.”
During efforts to press North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, which were eventually unsuccessful, Albright traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, becoming the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the secretive Communist-run country at the time.
Leaders, diplomats, and academics mourned her death, remembering her as a trailblazer on the world stage.
"Laura and I are heartbroken by the news of Madeleine Albright’s death. She lived out the American dream and helped others realize it." —President George W. Bush
— George W. Bush Presidential Center (@TheBushCenter) March 23, 2022
My statement on the passing of Madeleine Albright—one of the finest Secretaries of State, an outstanding UN Ambassador, a brilliant professor, and an extraordinary human being. pic.twitter.com/50QXFhzGit
— Bill Clinton (@BillClinton) March 23, 2022
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters