Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, dead at 84

Madeleine Albright, a child refugee from Nazi- and then Soviet-dominated eastern Europe who rose to become the 1st female U.S. secretary of state and a mentor to many current and former American statesmen and women, has died of cancer, her family said Wednesday. She was 84.

1st female U.S. secretary of state remained outspoken in views on U.S. foreign affairs

Madeleine Albright is seen speaking to the UN Security Council in May 1994. The famed diplomat and first woman to serve as the U.S. secretary of state, has died at age 84. (Marty Lederhandler/The Associated Press)

Madeleine Albright, a child refugee from Nazi- and then Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe who rose to become the first female U.S. secretary of state and a mentor to many current and former American statesmen and women, died Wednesday of cancer, her family said. She was 84.

A lifelong Democrat who nonetheless worked to bring Republicans into her orbit, Albright was chosen in 1996 by U.S. President Bill Clinton to be America's top diplomat, elevating her from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where she had been only the second woman to hold that job.

As secretary of state, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of U.S. government. She was not in the line of succession to the presidency, however, because she was a native of Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. The glass ceiling that she broke was universally admired, even by her political detractors.

"We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend," her family said in a statement.

Outpourings of condolences came quickly.

'Champion of democracy'

U.S. President Joe Biden said, "America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights than Secretary Albright, who knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy."

"When I think of Madeleine," Biden added, "I will always remember her fervent faith that 'America is the indispensable nation."'

Albright speaks at a State Department event in Washington on Jan. 10, 2017. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/The Associated Press)

Clinton called her "one of the finest Secretaries of State, an outstanding UN Ambassador, a brilliant professor and an extraordinary human being."

"Because she knew firsthand that America's policy decisions had the power to make a difference in people's lives around the world, she saw her jobs as both an obligation and an opportunity," Clinton wrote. "And through it all, even until our last conversation just two weeks ago, she never lost her great sense of humour or her determination to go out with her boots on, supporting Ukraine in its fight to preserve freedom and democracy."

'She served with distinction'

Former U.S. president George W. Bush said Albright "lived out the American dream and helped others realize it.... She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world."

Albright emigrated to the U.S. as a child. She served as Clinton's secretary of state, the 64th in the nation's history, until the end of Clinton's second term.

Albright succeeded Warren Christopher as secretary of state, having previously served the Clinton administration as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Albright is shown at a Washington event in 2014 with Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, who each served terms as secretary of state after Albright. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In one of her last public appearances, Albright was among those to eulogize the man who succeeded her as U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell.

"His virtues were Homeric — honesty, loyalty, dignity and an unshakeable commitment to his calling and his word," Albright said at a ceremony for Powell on Nov. 5 in Washington.

Years earlier, she once exclaimed to Powell, then the chairman of the U.S. 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 recalled in a memoir that Albright's comments almost made him have an "aneurysm."

Called Russian invasion a 'historic error'

More recently, she authored an opinion piece published in the New York Times last month, calling Russia's decision to invade Ukraine a "historic error," and recalling her first impression of Russian President Vladimir Putin after meeting him in 2000 as "so cold as to be almost reptilian."

"Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for [Joseph] Stalin's playbook," Albright wrote.

Albright is shown on Sept. 29, 1994, in New York while serving as U.S. ambassador. Next to her is Russia's ambassador and their current foreign minister nearly 30 years later, Sergei Lavrov. (Mark D. Phillips/AFP/Getty Images)

She frequently appeared as a guest to offer commentary on world events, including CBC News.

"When I was in office, we had no better relationship than the one with Canada," she told CBC's Power & Politics in 2018.

"We are in every way close and I specifically loved working with the Canadian foreign minister at the time, Lloyd Axworthy."

She also penned several books related to both her life and career as well as geopolitical developments, most recently with 2020's Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir.

Mixed record in Mideast diplomacy

Albright was an internationalist whose point of view was shaped in part by her background. Her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London. After the war, as the Soviet Union took over vast chunks of Europe, her father, a Czech diplomat, brought his family to the U.S.

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. In her UN post, she advocated a tough U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the case of Milosevic's treatment of Bosnia and NATO's intervention in Kosovo was eventually dubbed "Madeleine's War."

Reaction from Linda Greenfield-Thomas, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations:

"My mindset is Munich," she said frequently, referring to the German city where the Western allies abandoned her homeland to the Nazis.

Albright 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.

"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 on the West Bank and the Palestinians to rout terrorists posed serious problems.

Albright shares a laugh with then-foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy in Ottawa in 1998. (Dave Chan/AFP/Getty Images)

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 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

She also spearheaded an ill-fated effort to negotiate a 2000 peace deal between Israel and Syria. 

President Barack Obama said she didn't shrink in the face of the world's strongmen, while awarding her the highest civilian honour in the U.S. in 2012, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"When Saddam Hussein called her a 'snake,' she wore a serpent on her lapel the next time she visited Baghdad," said Obama.

"When Slobodan Milosevic referred to her as a 'goat,' a new pin appeared in her collection."

Childhood in the shadow of war

Albright's family was Jewish and converted to Roman Catholicism when she was five. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps.

Albright later said that she became aware of her Jewish background after she became secretary of state. After spending the war years in London, the family returned to Czechoslovakia after the Second World War but in 1948 fled again, this time to the United States, after the Communists rose to power.

Albright is seen on March 8, 2019 with former Polish president Lech Walesa in Warsaw, at an event commemorating Poland's 20 years in NATO. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

They settled in Denver, where her father obtained an academic job. One of Josef Korbel's students, Condoleezza Rice, would be the 66th U.S. secretary of state.

Among current officials who worked closely with Albright are Biden's domestic policy adviser and former UN ambassador Susan Rice, as well as Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and a host of others.

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 PhD in 1976.

She worked for the U.S. National Security Council during Jimmy Carter's presidency, and in 1984 she served as an adviser for vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman on a major U.S. presidential ticket.

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.

Albright married journalist Joseph Albright in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1983.

With files from CBC News