‘A trailblazer’: political leaders pay tribute to Madeleine Albright

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Tributes flooded in on Wednesday to Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the position of US secretary of state, who has died at the age of 84.

“Madeleine Albright was a force,” said Joe Biden in a statement. “Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history.”

“As a young girl, she found a home in the United States – after her family fled their home country of Czechoslovakia during World War II, and the iron curtain came down across central and eastern Europe. Her father, a diplomat, was marked for death by the Soviet regime. She spent the rest of her days defending freedom around the world and lifting up those who suffered under repression.”

Related: Madeleine Albright, first female US secretary of state, dies aged 84

Albright came to the US in the 1940s as a refugee. Born Marie Jana Korbelová, she became the US’s top diplomat in 1996 and served during the last four years of Bill Clinton’s administration. She was the highest-ranking woman in the history of US government at that time.

Clinton paid tribute to “one of the finest secretaries of state, an outstanding UN ambassador, a brilliant professor and an extraordinary human being”.

Hillary Clinton recalled Albright’s “unfailingly wise counsel” and said: “So many people around the world are alive and living better lives because of her service.”

“The impact that she has had on this building is felt every single day in just about every single corner … she was a trailblazer,” said the state department spokesperson, Ned Price.

In his tribute, the former president George W Bush said Albright had “lived out the American dream”.

“Laura and I are heartbroken by the news of Madeleine Albright’s death. She lived out the American dream and helped others realize it. He added: “I respect her love of country and public service, and Laura and I are grateful to have called Madeline [sic] Albright our friend.”

Albright was a young girl when her family fled Prague for London after the Nazis took Czechoslovakia in 1939. She was raised Catholic but years later discovered that her parents were Jewish and that several family members had been murdered in the Holocaust. Having returned to Prague after the war, Albright and her family fled to the US in 1948 after a Soviet-sponsored communist coup seized power.

“Madeleine was one of the most remarkable people I ever had the privilege to work with,” the former British prime minister Tony Blair said in a statement. “She had the sharpest of brains, the most lively conscience and the deepest compassion for humanity … She was an icon and an inspiration. I will miss her greatly. The world will miss her.”

As US secretary of state, Albright advocated for Nato expansion and pushed for the alliance to intervene in the Balkans to end ethnic cleansing and genocide in Kosovo.

“As the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat,” said President Barack Obama in 2012 when Albright was presented with the Medal of Freedom, “Madeleine’s courage and toughness helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world.”

On Wednesday, Obama called Albright “a champion for democratic values” and said, “Michelle and I send our thoughts to the Albright family and everyone who knew and served with a truly remarkable woman.”

Albright opposed the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, though she later expressed support for US troops in the country. But critics of Albright called out her support for US intervention more broadly and previous comments she made about the consequences of US sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s.

During a 1996 interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Albright was asked about the cost of those sanctions and the impact they had on Iraqi children.

“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” asked Stahl.

Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

Before her death, Albright apologized for those comments, calling her remarks “totally stupid” in a New York Times interview published in 2020.