Madeleine Albright (born Marie Jana Körbelová), 1937
Madeleine Albright was born in the Prague district of Smíchov in 1937. Shortly after her birth, she traveled to Belgrade with her mother, Anna, to join her father, Josef, who worked at the Czechoslovak Embassy in the Yugoslav capital. With the outbreak of WWII, the Körbel family traveled to Britain, where they settled first with relatives in Berkhamsted before moving to the London district of Notting Hill Gate. It was here that Madeleine experienced the Blitz. Madeleine’s father began work for the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, serving as both the private secretary to Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk and the head of the Czechoslovak service of the BBC.
Madeleine remembers her schooling in the United Kingdom during WWII, as well as a starring role she played in a Red Cross film about refugee children (in return for a stuffed rabbit). She returned to her native Czechoslovakia in 1945 and spent several months living in Prague on Hradčanské náměstí before her father was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia. Over the two years that followed, Madeleine says she led a “pretty constrained life” at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Belgrade, as her father did not want her to attend school with communists and so she was taught at home by a governess. In 1948, Madeleine was sent to school in Switzerland in order to learn French.
Shortly before the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Madeleine’s father was appointed to a UN commission on Kashmir. As a result of this appointment, the family traveled to the United States to live. In 1949, following the coup, the family sought asylum in the United States and settled in Denver, Colorado, where Madeleine’s father took a teaching position at the University of Denver. Madeleine attended Kent Denver School and then Wellesley College for her undergraduate degree. She subsequently attended Columbia University in New York City, where she wrote a doctoral thesis on the role of the media in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Madeleine became involved in politics as a campaigner for Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, and then as a member of his staff. She worked for the Carter administration under Zbigniew Brzezinski and then as the head of the National Democratic Institute. In 1993, she became the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. In 1997, she was appointed Secretary of State, making her the most powerful woman in the history of U.S. government until then.
Today, Madeleine Albright teaches the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University. She is the author of a number of best-selling books including Madame Secretary: A Memoir and, most recently, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, which reflects upon her own Czechoslovak background. She lives in Washington, D.C. and Virginia.
Madeleine says her family did not spent a lot of time longing for Czechoslovakia
“My father – the thing that was interesting about him, many things, but he was very young. He was Czechoslovakia’s youngest ambassador. And a lot of the émigrés were older people who stayed around the East Coast to some extent and, if I could say, lived more in the past. And they would… I remember this going to the Library of Congress, for instance, when I was in college still – there were a lot of little old Czechs there who kept calling each other ‘Your Excellency’ as they were arranging the card catalogue. And they would say ‘As I said to Beneš…’ And the other one would say ‘Well, as I said to Beneš…’ My father never did that. I mean, they moved to Denver and a lot of people would say ‘Well, if this had worked out, you would have been foreign minister.’ And he said ‘I don’t live that way.’ And he said – and there’s a lot in his papers now in terms of that – nothing made him happier than to be a professor in a free country. And he was so grateful to be in the United States. And really quite stunning in that particular way and so, I think they didn’t think about going back.”
Madeleine remembers her family’s road to American citizenship
“Our citizenship papers all took a little bit longer because it was during the McCarthy era, and also because technically my father had worked for a communist government for that period from 1948 until he defected, and trying to explain what that all meant… And, by the way, what is interesting is when I went to the UN, they gave me all the papers so that I could see how he begged Dean Acheson for asylum. There were letters from the British Foreign Office saying that he was really a good man and all that. The other part is, as I have been doing research for my last book, they gave me my father’s secret police records. And he keeps being accused of being a pro-Western democrat. But we were getting our citizenship during this difficult time.
“When I got to Wellesley, I didn’t realize this but – I mean, I’d gone to high school in Denver, my English teacher and my Latin teacher had gone to Wellesley – all of a sudden, freshman year, two weeks in, we all wore Bermuda shorts and Shetland sweaters and things like that… Anyway, at Wellesley what happens is that someone would come to visit you and they would announce it over the loudspeaker, so all of a sudden somebody came and said ‘Madeleine, there are some ladies here who want to take you into Boston to show you what the American girl wears.’ So I came down in my Bermuda shorts and Shetland sweater and anyway, it turns out that I was seen as a foreign student at Wellesley. And when I went to find out how… It was different days when they didn’t tell you what your SAT scores were, and I went to find out and they said ‘Amazing! Absolutely amazing!’ And I think it is because they thought I was a foreign student.”
Growing up, Madeleine says her parents spoke to her about their own political views
“All we ever talked about was foreign policy and history and politics. I mean, other people might have other discussions, but that’s all we ever talked about. And my father was amazing in terms of explaining history and in terms of telling stories that went along with it. And then what happened was that he… I kid about this, Alexis has heard me on the subject – I am old, he is dead, and I am still the perfect daughter; all I ever wanted to do was to be the perfect daughter. And so whatever my father was doing I did. So, he got interested in India and Pakistan, so I wrote a paper on Mahatma Gandhi (by the way, I have now found everything, it is in a box here). And so I learned about all of this, and I wanted to know, as my father wrote books, I always wanted to know what he was doing.”
Madeleine recalls her response to the Velvet Revolution in 1989
So I had a copy of my father’s book, and Havel knew that he was going to meet with some American delegation and I’m handing him my father’s book and he says ‘I know who you are. You’re Mrs. Fulbright.’ And I said ‘No, I’m Mrs. Albright.’ And that is how our friendship began.
“We were in the Castle, and I told him what NDI could do, and that we could help. And he said ‘It would really help me… I need a new electoral law.’ And in two or three days I managed to get experts that weren’t American (because we had a different system), that came to help on the electoral law. The other thing that happened, he said – we were sitting there with Žantovský and various people and he said – ‘Why don’t you talk to my advisors and, because we are setting up the presidential office, whatever ideas you have…’ So we actually went to Vikárka [restaurant], which is up by the cathedral, and we started talking about – because I had been in the Carter administration – what a presidential office would look like.
“So I explained to them and then, I’ll never forget this: it was January; it was snowing, and I was staying at the Jalta Hotel up by Václavské náměstí [Wenceslas Square], but I walked down the stairs and then crossed Charles Bridge in the snow and I thought ‘I’ve never left here.’ And then I thought ‘Well, that’s not possible!’ Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to speak English and wouldn’t have understood how a presidential office really works.”
Madeleine talks about the ways in which she tried to shape U.S. policy during her time in office
“Well, I have always believed in the goodness of American power. And the theme in my life has been that America was not present at Munich and terrible things happened. Americans then come into WWII and everything changes. Then, as a result of agreements made during WWII – even though Patton marched 45 kilometers into Czechoslovakia – as a result of the agreements, Soviets ‘liberated’ Czechoslovakia. So, when the U.S. isn’t there, bad things happen. When the U.S. is involved, good things happen.
“So, I have always thought that we, and I believe in… I grew up with this whole concept of what it’s like to live in a free country, the fragility of democracy, the importance of American values, a beacon, sailing past the Statue of Liberty, the whole works in that regard.
So, I have believed in the importance of America’s role internationally. That was very much the theme of when I taught and then specifically when I actually had something to do with it at the UN and when I was secretary. And so I have believed in the fact that we need to be internationalist. President Clinton said it first, but I said it so often – that we were ‘the indispensible nation’ – that it got identified with me. And there was nothing about the word indispensible that means alone – it just means that we have to be engaged.
“And what had happened after… I had worked in the Carter administration for Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is not dissimilar from me in terms of background, and what was the role of the United States? And President Carter with the human rights policy and all that fit into… And then we had Reagan, Bush, who – I thought – did the exact opposite. And what had happened after the Gulf War, when there had been all of a sudden Democrats coming back into office, and there had been sort of a lack of attention to domestic programs – I was afraid that we were just going to look inward. And so that’s why at the UN I thought we needed to be engaged and operate with partnerships and use the United Nations.
“So then, because life is so peculiar, the fact that I should be at the UN with my background was one thing, then the fact that the major thing we dealt with was the Balkans when my father had been ambassador there and I could actually understand it when the Serbs and the Croats came and they spoke to each other. You know, life is weird.”
Madeleine reflects upon the state of democracy in the Czech Republic today
“Democracy is more complicated than it looks. And I think that there were certain issues that weren’t completely resolved at the beginning. I have said this publicly before, and I said it to Václav Havel personally – he made a mistake in not creating a political party. Because you need… Movements can’t run countries. I believe in political parties. Political parties are the channel whereby people talk to their leaders and vice versa. But because of his experience, with ‘party’ being the Communist Party, there was kind of an allergy to the whole thing.
“Democracy is harder than it looks, and it is not an event; it is a process. And even we – the United States is the world’s oldest democracy – and at the moment we’re screwed up. I mean, I just came in listening to the radio and we can’t decide how to pass a farm bill that is both good for the farmers and the poor people.
You know, everything is an argument; there has been a terrible discussion now between the majority and the minority leader in the Senate over nominations… I mean, democracy is not simple.
“In the Czech Republic, what has basically happened is that there is – from what I read, there is a lot of corruption. Corruption is the cancer of democracy. And I think that one of the things that people forget is that – and this is a term only applicable in Europe – the ‘intelligentsia’ has a very good time during periods of freedom, ordinary people need to have… Democracy needs to deliver. People want to vote and eat. And so reading about, in this very week, reading about what is going on in the Czech Republic should be embarrassing to the Czechs. Because they had an amazing Velvet Revolution with probably one of the most amazing leaders in modern history, who made mistakes – everybody makes mistakes. But he really is the most modern, moral leader that any country could have and the Czechs should be proud that they had him as president. But what is going on now is very troubling.”
Category: Oral History, Washington D.C.