Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
Johns Hopkins 
     Magazine Home

APRIL 2000


Toughness and stamina have marked Madeleine Albright's tenure as the first female U.S. secretary of state.
Opening photo:
Albright: a "barrier breaker."
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

· · · · · · · · · · · ·
A Legacy of Engagement
By Lew Diuguid (SAIS '63)

Madeleine Korbel Albright, who began her diplomatic career as a doctoral candidate at Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, returned to SAIS in January to lay out the goals of her final year as keeper of the Clinton administration's foreign policy. Those goals were noble but unexceptional, lending credence to her reputation as more an achiever than conceptualizer of policy.

Endlessly shuttling through the Balkans and the Middle East to resolve regional conflicts, she has achieved a goal at home no less elusive: agreement from an entrenched congressional opposition to meet United Nations obligations. Her legacy may well be that she upheld an active U.S. international engagement in an epoch of renascent isolationism.

Dean Paul D. Wolfowitz praised her toughness and stamina and pointed out in his introduction that she was the country's first female secretary of state. "We still claim you as one of us," he said, while noting that after a year in the class of 1963 she moved on to Columbia University to complete her master's and doctorate.

Albright, with a knack for repartee that three years as secretary have enhanced, cocked her head and responded from the dais, "I know that you still claim me. I keep getting those annual giving letters." She did not focus in her lecture on the precedent of being the highest ranking woman ever in the U.S. government. Rather, she expressed pride in being "the last secretary of state of the 20th century and the first of the 21st century"--a period of relative peace and of American leadership scarcely challenged worldwide.

As a research professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in the 1970s, she also was director of the Women in Foreign Service Program there and claims credit in her official biography "for developing and implementing programs designed to enhance women's professional opportunities in international affairs." In advancing her gender, surely, her example has been their guide.

When as a recent Wellesley graduate--newly married to newspaperman Joseph Medill Patterson Albright--she entered SAIS in 1961, the school was in its 18th year. Albright applied for the doctoral program and was required immediately to declare the topic of her dissertation. That, she said, focused her mind. Her eventual topic, altered en route, became "The Role of the Press in Policy Change: Czechoslovakia 1968."

Albright chuckled as she recalled having taken a course notoriously known by SAIS students as Wide,Wide World. "It covered everything," she said, and it "translated into many, many credits at Columbia."

The future secretary of state's own origins heavily influenced her academic choices. She was born in 1937, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Her father, Joseph Korbel, was a Czechoslovakian diplomat posted there, and her mother also was Czech. As Europe fell prey to Adolf Hitler, Korbel and his family escaped to London, returning to Prague after World War II. In 1948, the Communists took power, and the Korbels this time fled to the U.S. Korbel became a professor at the University of Denver.

The European origins of the U.S. secretary of state became an issue in 1997, with the publication in the Washington Post Magazine of an article by Michael Dobbs. Albright had been part of President Clinton's Cabinet since 1993, when he appointed her permanent representative to the United Nations and gave her a permanent seat on the National Security Council.

Dobbs, while researching his profile of the new secretary in Europe, decided to see what remained from her time in Eastern Europe. He found that her roots were Jewish, and that several close relatives had died in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Her father had converted to Catholicism in time to evade that fate. Dobbs's article led to a book, Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth Century Odyssey (1999).

Albright has said, in effect, that all this was news to her, that her parents (now deceased) raised her as a Catholic and did not dwell on their past. She has handled the resulting controversy with a low-key calm that soon laid it to rest. One possibly lasting result has been to give her career a relevance to American Jews, as well as to the foreign-born, seeking government service--akin to her low-key but persistent presence in skirmishes along the country's gender divide.

As Dobbs put it, "Once in America, Madeleine broke through traditional male barriers to rise to the highest position ever obtained by a woman through a mixture of persistence, personal charm, and dogged hard work....By reaching one of the highest positions in the United States attainable by an immigrant, she has exceeded the expectations of her ancestors."

And along the way, Albright has become the first alumna of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies to rule the roost at Foggy Bottom.