Madeleine Albright has lived her life in pursuit of the American dream, a journey that took her from being a diplomat's daughter in Czechoslovakia to becoming America's first female Secretary of State.
She was born in 1937 in Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. Her parents, Jews who converted to Catholicism to escape Nazi persecution, fled to London in 1939, since the Nazis had begun to arrest many of their Jewish relatives. Albright's father had served in the Czechoslovak diplomatic service. When the family immigrated to the United States in 1948, he became the founding dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Colorado in Denver.
Madeleine Albright says she followed closely in her father's footsteps. "I liked the way that he conducted his life," she says. "So as a personal thing, my father and then political figures that I admired were my role models, but the model of my father is what inspired me."
Albright became a U.S citizen In 1957, while she was a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. As a naturalized citizen, she believes she has a special appreciation for what it means to be an American. " I have always thought that this was an incredible country and exceptional in many ways," she says. "And I do think the world needs an America that is actively engaged, that is generous, that is working in partnerships with others, and helps to manage a very complicated international system."
After graduating from Wellesley in 1959 with a degree (and honors) in political science, she married Chicago newspaper journalist Joseph Albright. While raising her family, she earned a Ph.D in Public Law and Government from Columbia University.
Madeleine Albright served as chief legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie from 1976 to 1978. She says she loved the work, and has always felt a deep passion for politics. "Politics is not a bad thing. It is the way that a democracy talks to itself," Albright says. "I loved every aspect of it. I got involved with some really incredible political figures like Ed Muskie, Walter Mondale, President Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and now Hillary Clinton."
With her appetite for politics whetted by her experience as a Senate staffer, Albright eagerly accepted an invitation in 1978 to serve on President Jimmy Carter's White House staff and later, on the National Security Council. Her keen understanding of foreign affairs led her to become an increasingly important and trusted voice on foreign affairs within the Carter Administration.
In 1982, after Carter's election loss to President Ronald Reagan, Albright returned to academe as a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S policy and international affairs, Albright was responsible for developing university programs designed to enhance women's professional opportunities in international affairs.
She put some of those ideas into practice starting in 1984, when she was hired as a foreign policy advisor to the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro. Four years later, another Democratic presidential candidate named Michael Dukakis hired her in the same advisory role.
She returned to international politics in 1993, when newly elected President Bill Clinton appointed her to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She admits it was a difficult job and expresses some regrets regarding her performance there. "I regretted very much the actions of our administration in not doing enough to help in Rwanda," she says, referring to the genocidal civil war in central Africa in 1994 during which an estimated one million people were systematically killed. "I think we all feel that way and have analyzed what happened. I think it would have been very hard to get forces there quickly enough to stop the genocide or killing, but I wish we would have tried."
Albright made history in 1997 when she was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to be the 64th Secretary of State, the nation's top diplomat. She was the first woman ever to hold that office and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. As Secretary of State, Albright helped shape American policies in critical areas like the Middle East, China, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Since leaving the State Department at the end of President Clinton's second term in 2001, Madeleine Albright has not abandoned her interest in foreign policy. She believes the United States has a unique role to play on the world stage, but that role, she says, must be in partnership with other nations.
"The U.S will continue to be the indispensable nation, which does not mean alone," Albright says. "It means that our engagement in the world is not something that has brought us the problems, but it will be required for us to try to help solve the problems of the 21st century."
Albright says she believes "in the goodness of America and the humanitarian spirit," and that helping "those who are starving or being tortured in various places" is in the U.S. national interest.
Madeleine Albright currently serves as Chairman of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. She has shared the highlights of her unusual life and her experiences at the White House and the State Department in two recent books: Madam Secretary: A Memoir and her latest, The Mighty & The Almighty-Reflections on America, God and World Affairs.