From 1936 to 1939 the Korbel Family lived in Belgrade, and in 1939 the Korbel family fled to London. Many of her Jewish relatives in Czechoslovakia were killed in the Holocaust, including three of her grandparents.
She and her parents fled again when the Communists assumed power over Czechoslovakia, moving to the United States in 1948. Once settled there, Josef became the founding dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Korbel later taught future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In Madam Secretary, Albright wrote of how her mother told her that Rice was her father's favorite student. At Josef's funeral, Rice gave the family a planter shaped like a piano in memory of Korbel; it was Korbel that convinced Rice to switch from her Music major to majoring in International Studies.
Albright attended school in Switzerland and in Denver at Kent Denver School, and later majored in political science on a scholarship at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She became a US citizen in 1957. After Wellesley graduation in May 1959, she married Chicago newspaper journalist Joseph Medill Patterson Albright on 11 June 1959, whom she had met working a summer job with the Denver Post.
They had three daughters, twins Anne and Alice, and Katie:
When the twins were born six weeks prematurely, Albright took a course in Russian as a distraction. By the end of their hospital stay, she was fluent in the language. While raising her family, she earned a PhD in Public Law and Government from Columbia University.
The couple divorced in 1982.
From 1976 to 1978, she served as Chief Legislative Assistant to US Senator Edmund Muskie. From 1978 to 1981, as both a staff member of the White House and the National Security Council, Albright was an important Carter administration official responsible for the formulation of foreign policy legislation.
From 1981 to 1982, Secretary Albright was awarded a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution following an international competition in which she wrote about the role of the press in political changes in Poland during the early 1980s.
From 1981 to 1982, she also served as a Senior Fellow in Soviet and Eastern European Affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, conducting research in developments and trends in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In 1981, she co-founded the Center for National Policy. She also served as President of the organization.
In 1982, Albright was appointed Research Professor of International Affairs and Director of Women in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in international affairs, US foreign policy, Russian foreign policy, and Central and Eastern European politics, and was responsible for developing and implementing programs designed to enhance women's professional opportunities in international affairs. She was voted "best teacher" four times. Before becoming Secretary of State, Albright served as US Ambassador to the United Nations in President Clinton's Cabinet. Today, Secretary Albright is once again a professor at Georgetown.
In 1994, in her role as the United State's UN permanent representative she led efforts to deny declaring the massacres in Rwanda genocide . The State Department instructed the White House press secretary to avoid using the words "genocide" and to substitute the terms "acts of genocide". She also led resistance to a new mandate to a new UN mission towards "ensuring" stability and security in the provinces of Rwanda .
She was also criticized for defending the sanctions of Iraq under Saddam Hussein in a 1996 interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS's 60 Minutes. When asked by Stahl with regards to effect of sanctions against Iraq: "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it. She expressed regret for this remark in her 2003 autobiography, where she wrote,
I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. … As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy, and wrong. … I had fallen into a trap and said something that I simply did not mean. That is no one’s fault but my own.
This "trap" has been identified as a loaded question. Her failure of "reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws" has been called "the non-denial heard 'round the world because "by not challenging the statistic, Albright inadvertently lent credence to it." When asked about her response in 2005, Albright said "I never should have made it, it was stupid," and that she still supported the concept of tailored sanctions.
Both Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright insisted that an attack on Hussein could only be stopped if Hussein reversed his decision to halt arms inspections. "Iraq has a simple choice. Reverse course or face the consequences," Albright said.
The lawyers of Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-Owhali, convicted in the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, used Albright's 60 Minutes comment in an attempt to save the terrorist from the death penalty.
Also in 1996, after Cuban pilots shot down two small civilian aircraft flown by the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue into Cuban territory, she announced, "This is not cojones. This is cowardice." The line reportedly endeared her to President Clinton. Boutros Boutros-Ghali's spokesperson Sylvana Foa said of Albright, "She's no shrinking violet. She can be biting."
During her tenure, Albright considerably influenced American policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Middle East. She incurred the wrath of a number of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia for her perceived personal anti-Serb position and her role in participating in the formulation of US policy during the Kosovo War and Bosnian war as well as the rest of the Balkans. But, together with President Bill Clinton, she remains a largely popular figure in the rest of the region, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Croatia. According to Albright's memoirs, she once argued with Colin Powell for the use of military force by asking, "What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?"
As Secretary of State she represented the United States at the Handover of Hong Kong on 1 July, 1997. She boycotted the swearing-in ceremony of the China-appointed Legislative Council, which replaced the elected one, along with the British contingents.
According to several accounts, the American ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, repeatedly asked Washington for additional security at the embassy in Nairobi, including in an April 1998 letter directly to Albright. Bushnell was ignored. In "Against All Enemies," Richard Clarke writes about an exchange with Albright several months after the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in August 1998. "What do you think will happen if you lose another embassy?" Clarke asked. "The Republicans in Congress will go after you." "First of all, I didn't lose these two embassies," Albright shot back. "I inherited them in the shape they were." Albright was booed in 1998 when the brief war threat with Iraq revealed that citizens were opposed to such an invasion, although this is often overlooked.
In 1998, at the 50th anniversary NATO summit, Albright articulated what would become known as the "three Ds" of NATO, "which is no diminution of NATO, no discrimination and no duplication—because I think that we don't need any of those three "Ds" to happen.
In one of her last acts as Secretary of State, Albright on January 8, 2001, paid a farewell call on Kofi Annan and said that the United States would continue to press Iraq to destroy all its weapons of mass destruction as a condition of lifting economic sanctions, even after the end of the Clinton administration on January 20, 2001.
Albright currently serves on the Council on Foreign Relations Board of directors and on the International Advisory Committee of the Brookings Doha Center. She is also currently the Mortara Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. On October 25, 2005, Albright guest starred on the TV drama Gilmore Girls as herself.
In 2003, she accepted a position on the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2005, Albright declined to run for re-election to the Board in the aftermath of the Grasso compensation scandal, in which the Chairman of the NYSE Board of Directors, Dick Grasso, had been granted $187.5-million dollars in compensation, with little governance by the board on which Albright sat. During the tenure of the interim chairman, John S. Reed, Albright served as chairwoman of the NYSE board's nominating and governance committee. Shortly after the appointment of the NYSE board's permanent chairman in 2005, Albright submitted her resignation.
On January 5, 2006, she participated in a meeting at the White House of former Secretaries of Defense and State to discuss United States foreign policy with George W. Bush administration officials. On May 5, 2006 she was again invited to the White House to meet with former Secretaries and Bush administration officials to discuss Iraq.
Albright currently serves as chairperson of National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and as president of the Truman Scholarship Foundation She is also the co-chair of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor and held the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders Women's Ministerial Initiative up until November 16, 2007, succeeded by Margot Wallström.
In an interview given to Newsweek International published July 24, 2006, Albright gave her opinion in United States' current foreign policy. Albright said: "I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid that Iraq is going to turn out to be the greatest disaster in American foreign policy—worse than Vietnam.
Albright has mentioned her physical fitness and exercise regimen in several interviews. She has said she is capable of leg pressing 400 pounds.
At the National Press Club in Washington on November 13th, 2007, Albright declared that she with William Cohen would co-chair a new "Genocide Prevention Task Force" created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the United States Institute for Peace. Skeptical members of the press and activists questioned their sincerity , as Albright (along with eight other former Secretaries of State) has opposed the United States resolution on Armenian genocide. Armenian-American Community Leaders, like Harut Sassounian, have labelled Albright a Holocaust denier and called for her resignation from the task force.
Albright endorsed and supported Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in her 2008 campaign for President of the United States. Albright has been a close friend of Senator Clinton and serves as her top informal advisor on foreign policy matters. She is currently serving as a top advisor for Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) in a working group on national security.
During his first hearing in front of the ICTY, Radovan Karadžić stated that Madeleine Albright along with Richard Holbrooke offered him a deal which would allow him not to get prosecuted for war crimes if he would disappear from public life and politics. According to Karadžić, Albright offered him to get out of the way and go to Russia, Greece, or Serbia and open a private clinic or to at least go to Bijeljina. He also said that Holbrooke or Albright would like to see him disappear and expressed the fear for his life by saying "I do not know how long the arm of Mr Holbrooke or Mrs Albright is ... or whether that arm can reach me here,".