Madeleine Albright, Madame Secretary

Madeleine Albright, Madame Secretary

The first female secretary of state conducted two oral histories at the Miller Center

As secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, who died on March 23, 2022, at age 84, was the first woman to hold that position.

Albright was a friend of UVA's Miller Center, having sat with us for hours for oral history interviews for both the Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton Oral History Projects.

For the latter, as everyone around the room introduced themselves, Albright—always the quick wit—said, "I'm Madeleine Albright, the victim."

She later reflected on her time as both UN ambassador and secretary of state:

One thing I learned in the Clinton administration is that you spend a lot of time on the Hill as a Cabinet member testifying. I did that both as UN ambassador and as secretary of state. I used to say all the time that they weren’t hearings, they were yellings. 

Then she discussed the importance of not just the work but of establishing relationships across departments:

[Clinton National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger and I first met during the Carter administration in a very limited way, because he was deputy director of policy planning and I was a staffer on the NSC. We later got to know each other better through all the losing Democratic presidential campaigns we were involved in. He had come on the airplane during the [Walter] Mondale-[Geraldine] Ferraro campaign in 1984. We’d known each other a very long time. When he was national security advisor, we would have our moments when he’d call up and say, What the hell is this in the newspapers? How did this get in here? Then I’d say something rude, and then we’d get over it. We’d say, This is ridiculous. We actually did things that probably two men would not do. We hugged each other, made up, moved on. So the friendship part of it was very important.

Read more from Albright's Clinton oral history

Read more from Albright's Carter oral history

Watch Albright at UVA's Presidential Ideas Festival in 2019

Watch: The full conversation with Secretary Albright

What Secretary Albright and Stephen Hadley would tell President Trump

Secretary Albright and Stephen Hadley on China

Secretary Albright on being a refugee

Miller Center Professor Russell Riley, co-chair of the Oral History Program, led an oral history interview with Albright in 2006. He offered these thoughts on her passing.

There is something unsettling about the death of Madeleine Albright at this perilous moment, barely five months after the passing of Colin Powell. Do we still have their like today? These two, who lived, and directed, so much history are no longer among us to provide their wisdom as the world contemplates an armed precipice.

Although Albright held the nation’s two highest diplomatic appointments, it is worth recalling that she was a fierce advocate for using U.S. military might to defend the helpless. In a 2006 oral history interview, she recalled the internal debates within the Clinton administration over what to do in another awful place witnessing moral outrages: Bosnia. Demonstrating the complexities of military intervention under such conditions, her chief obstacle to action there was none other than General Powell himself.

Here is her story (edited for readability):

During the [1992 presidential] campaign, I really had a sense that the Clinton campaign people, of which I was not one, were very proactive on Bosnia. They were very critical of the fact that the Bush administration had not done anything about it…. What happened then was that other issues [intruded].

I went to the [foreign policy] principals meetings and it did not seem to me that we were where we should have been. I have to admit that at that stage I hadn’t learned to argue in a way that didn’t strike [National Security Adviser] Tony [Lake] as being emotional, which is the best way to put a woman down. I remember one time I said something like, “Gentleman, history is going to judge us very badly if we don’t do something.” Our main problem, in addition to everything else, was Colin Powell [then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]. I say this with a lot of regret, because Colin and I are very good friends. 

I had first talked to Colin when he was Deputy National Security Advisor during the Dukakis campaign because the campaign is entitled to an intelligence briefing and I was the one who set it up. So Colin and I started talking at that stage. So here he is. Except for Powell, we were all brand new.

You have a huge agenda at the beginning of an administration…. You begin a whole series of principals meetings. It’s always the same people. You are working your way through problems and trying to figure out each other’s personality and what your job is and everything. Colin was the grownup. Here he was; he’d done it before. There is something about arriving in a meeting with medals from here to here and having just won the Gulf War and having been National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. If you’re going to do military action, you’re dependent on the military. You have a new Secretary of Defense who is being mau-maued by the new CIA director, and I mean there are a lot of strange things going on. 

So the thing that would happen on a regular basis would be that Tony or [Defense Secretary] Les Aspin would say, “We need a plan from the Joint Chiefs about under what circumstances we could use the military.” On a regular basis Colin would come in and do a presentation. He is a brilliant briefer, and the Pentagon is really good at pictures and charts and 3-D things. Colin had a little red pointer and he’d go through this and say, “We can take that hill and we can do that and we can do this.” You know we have the best military in the world, but it’s going to take 500,000 men and $500 billion and 50 years. “What are you going to say to Sergeant Slepchok’s mother when he dies from having stepped on a land mine?” So he’d lead you up the hill of possibilities and then drop you off the other side, and you’d end up with no options. 

At one stage I did say, “You know, Colin, what are you saving this incredible military for?” He did get mad at me. But then he reached the end of his term and General [John] Shalikashvili comes in, who is a very different kind of a Chairman, somebody who had worked with the UN and on Operation Provide Comfort in Iraq. Also, he was a European. He just had a different approach. He began to point out what could be done. Also, at that stage, French President [Jacques] Chirac was very helpful, and we actually took on a military operation in Bosnia and won. 

So when Colin wrote his book, he wrote that I practically gave him an aneurysm when I suggested this, and he had to explain patiently to Ambassador Albright that our military were not toy soldiers. Somebody from the New Yorker I think called me up and said, “Have you read Colin Powell’s book?” I said no. So I thought, What the hell. I called him up and said, Colin, ‘patiently?’ He said, “I did have to explain it to you patiently. You didn’t understand anything about the military.” So he sent me his book and he signed it, “To Madeleine, with love, admiration, etc.” He signed it, “Patiently, Colin.” 

I sent him back a note and said, “Dear Colin, thanks for the book. With love and admiration.” I signed it, “Forcefully, Madeleine.” 

Forcefully, Madeleine. A fitting epitaph for these times.