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Family fled Czechoslovakia in 1937 amid Nazi annexation

Madeleine Albright, first female US secretary of state, dies of cancer at 84

As Clinton’s top diplomat, Albright led US efforts to broker Israel-Palestinian, Israel-Syria peace; she described discovering her Jewish heritage late in life as a gift

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks at a reception celebrating the completion of the US Diplomacy Center Pavilion at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, File)
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks at a reception celebrating the completion of the US Diplomacy Center Pavilion at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, File)

WASHINGTON — Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state, has died of cancer, her family said Wednesday. She was 84.

‘“She was surrounded by family and friends,” her family announced on Twitter. “We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend.” It said the cause was cancer.

President Bill Clinton chose Albright as America’s top diplomat in 1996, and she served in that capacity for the final four years of the Clinton administration, in 1997-2001.

At the time, she was the highest-ranking woman in the history of US government. She was not in the line of succession for the presidency, however, because she was a native of Czechoslovakia.

Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London. Albright’s parents converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1941. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II but fled again, this time to the United States, in 1948, after the Communists rose to power.

In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Albright the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, saying her life was an inspiration to all Americans

Albright remained outspoken through the years. After leaving office, she criticized President George W. Bush for using “the shock of force” rather than alliances to foster diplomacy and said Bush had driven away moderate Arab leaders and created the potential for a dangerous rift with European allies.

In this Sept. 5, 1999 file photo, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, seated right, consults with Saeb Erekat, right, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, seated left, sign a land-for-security agreement in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh as US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, background right, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, center background, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, left background, look on. (AP Photo/Dimitri Messinis, File)

However, as a refugee from Czechoslovakia, she was not a dove and played a leading role in pressing for the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo. She also toed a hard line on Cuba, famously saying at the United Nations that the Cuban shootdown of a civilian plane was not “cojones” but rather “cowardice.”

She advised women “to act in a more confident manner” and “to ask questions when they occur and don’t wait to ask.

“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent,” she told HuffPost Living in 2010.

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of Bush’s proposed “surge” in US troops in bloodied Iraq, she responded: “I think we need a surge in diplomacy. We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power and our motives are suspect.”

Albright was an internationalist whose point of view was shaped in part by her background.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat greets U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before the start of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 29 , 2000. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette, File)

As secretary of state, she played a key role in persuading Clinton to go to war against the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic over his treatment of Kosovar Albanians in 1999. “My mindset is Munich,” she said frequently, referring to the German city where the Western allies abandoned her homeland to the Nazis.

She helped win Senate ratification of NATO’s expansion and a treaty imposing international restrictions on chemical weapons. She led a successful fight to keep Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali from a second term as secretary-general of the United Nations. He accused her of deception and posing as a friend.

In her UN post, she advocated a tough US foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic’s treatment of Bosnia. And she once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Powell, who died last year, recalled in a memoir that Albright’s comments almost made him have an “aneurysm.”

“I am an eternal optimist,” Albright said in 1998, amid an effort as secretary of state to promote peace in the Middle East. But she said getting Israel to pull back in the West Bank and getting the Palestinians to rout terrorists posed serious problems.

As America’s top diplomat, Albright made limited progress at first in trying to expand the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the principle of self-rule for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. But in 1998, she played a leading role in formulating the Wye Accords that turned over control of about 40 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

She also spearheaded an ill-fated effort to negotiate a 2000 peace deal between Israel and Syria under Syria’s late President Hafez Assad. And, she helped guide US foreign policy during conflicts in the Balkans and the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, left, with Madeleine Albright, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. as he greets on Friday February 12, 1993 at Regency Hotel in New York. (AP Photo/David Karp)

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, She was the daughter of a diplomat, Joseph Korbel. The family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 5. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.

Albright said that she became aware of her Jewish background only after she became secretary of state.

In 2013, she published “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War,” a memoir tracing the Jewish heritage of her parents and the fate of 25 relatives she lost in the Holocaust. In a Washington Post interview, she likened the revelation of her Jewish past to being handed a gift to unwrap.

President Barack Obama awards Madeleine Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House, on May 29, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

When her family immigrated to the US they settled in Denver, where her father obtained a job at the University of Denver. One of Josef Korbel’s best students, a young woman named Condoleezza Rice, would later succeed his daughter as secretary of state, the first Black woman to hold that office.

Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She worked as a journalist and later studied international relations at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1976.

She worked for the National Security Council during the Carter administration and advised Democrats on foreign policy before Clinton’s election. He appointed her as US ambassador to the UN in 1993.

Following her service in the Clinton administration, she headed a global strategy firm, Albright Stonebridge, and was chair of an investment advisory company that focused on emerging markets.

She also wrote several books. Albright married journalist Joseph Albright, a descendant of Chicago’s Medill-Patterson newspaper dynasty, in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1983.

JTA and AFP contributed to this report

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