Madeleine Korbel Albright, our nation’s first woman Secretary of State, knew authoritarianism up close and so very personal. Born in Czechoslovakia, she arrived in the US—on the ship SS America—with her diplomat father and family when she was eleven years old. At that young age, she’d already survived the Nazis’ blitz of London and the Communists’ takeover of Czechoslovakia.
In the years that followed and in all the prestigious positions she held—as the US Ambassador to the UN, a professor at Georgetown University, best-selling author, mentor to young women, and more—she dedicated her life to advancing peace and strengthening democracy.
I had the uplifting experience of watching her funeral service on C-SPAN Wednesday morning. Attendees in Washington’s National Cathedral included America’s past and present leadership, as well as heads of state, diplomats, and dissidents from many other countries.
There were many wonderful stories about this brilliant, feisty, funny, loving woman. I’d happily retell them as one of my Inspirational People posts.
It felt encouraging and somehow soothing to enjoy hearing about the rich, full life of Madeleine Albright. All the speakers made it clear that Albright’s intellect, diplomatic skills, and steadfast beliefs about freedom and democracy were seamlessly fused and key to her successes.
The speakers persuaded me that her legacy lies most strongly in heeding what her experiences and convictions tell us about our need to treasure and protect democracy at home and abroad. So I’m setting the colorful anecdotes aside.
The event took on a special urgency because of both the horrors we’re seeing from the Russian invasion and attempted decimation of Ukraine and the continuing battles here in the US to protect the democracy we have, moving it closer to its ideals.
Our democracy is so much more fragile than we’d assumed as we face the nationwide assaults by Republican state and federal legislators and parts of the judiciary, all the way up to the Supreme Court, against voting rights and other Constitutional guarantees we felt were immutable.
Every speaker stressed the message that reverberated throughout her life: that democracy is precious, and it can’t be taken for granted.
President Biden called her “a force of nature” who “turned the tide of history.” Albright, he said, “…always had a knack for explaining to the American people why it mattered to them that people everywhere in the world were struggling to breathe free.”
“Having gained the blessings of liberty,” he said, “she wanted nothing more than to share them around the globe.”
Biden said he’d been traveling to NATO for an urgent meeting with our allies when he heard about her death. “It was not lost on me that Madeleine was a big part of the reason NATO was still strong and galvanized, as it is today.”
The President, who often states his concern that the world is facing a battle between democracy and autocracy, said “freedom had no greater champion.” She was “always, and I mean always, on top of the latest developments. Always speaking out for democracy, and always the first to sound the alarm about fascism.”
Hillary Clinton, who’d become a close friend, noted that in the last conversation she and former President Clinton had with Albright, two weeks before her death, she stressed how important it was that the US continue its efforts to rally “the world against Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine and the urgent work of defending democracy at home and around the world.”
“If Madeleine were here with us today, she would also remind us this must be a season of action, and yes, once again we must heed the wisdom of her life and the cause of her public service. Stand up to dictators and demagogues from the battlefields of Ukraine to the halls of our own Capitol. Defend democracy at home just as vigorously as we do abroad.”
In an essay published in The New York Times just a month before her death, Albright recalled her first meeting with Putin in the year 2000, when he became acting president of Russia.
The notes she made after the meeting referred to his reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”
Writing this essay as the Russian troops were massing at Ukraine’s borders but before their attack, she said if he invaded, “it will be a historic error.”
“Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically ripped and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.”
Even if Putin didn’t attack Ukraine this time, she stressed, he would surely “strike in the future.” The US and its allies must make sure he doesn’t “by sustaining forceful diplomatic pushback and increasing economic and military support for Ukraine.”
In 2018, Albright’s book Fascism: A Warning was published. In an interview with Vox, she said: “What you almost always see in fascist regimes is propaganda being used to set people against each other without any potential solutions to any of the problems. Fascism is always, in the end, about stirring people up and giving them someone to hate.”
Interestingly, in that interview, she was asked why she called Trump “anti-democratic” but did not call him a fascist.
“I don’t call him a fascist because he isn’t violent. If he ends up declaring an emergency at the border over immigration, then I might change my position.” Using “emergencies” to create fear and conflict, she said, is a “potential red line. If Trump does that, then he really is a bully with an army.”
Remember, this was in 2018—before unidentified men on horseback beat peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors as the then-President made his way to a church photo-op. And, it was before the January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol.
We can expect to learn more when the House Select January 6 Committee holds its public hearings in June. We know already that the Big Lie and hatred of others are being used to secure power in the hands of the few and make it difficult, if not impossible, for those who oppose those autocratic tactics to gain elective office.
Albright referred to herself as “an optimist who worries a lot.” Both of those sides were evident in the Vox interview.
“Some people have said my book is alarmist, and my response is always, ‘It’s supposed to be.’”
“I’m a professor, and I know that my students are community-oriented and service-oriented and are looking for ways to participate. I would encourage young people to do everything they can. I don’t want us to fall into the trap of thinking anything is inevitable.”
Though I’m not a young person, I find Madeleine Albright’s view provides just the right balance. There is reason to be alarmed by the assaults on democracy, both here and abroad. But the Ukrainians don’t think losing their democracy is inevitable, and I don’t believe we should think so about losing ours. To hold onto it, though, we must—each one of us—do everything we can.
In the video above, which I hope you’ll watch, she talked about the roots of fascism and how to confront it. Mussolini’s statement is the most relevant in her book, she asserted. He gained power slowly, saying “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, people don’t notice.”
She urged us not to be hysterical all the time, but to take notice of each plucking. Her book holds two “contradictory statements,” she said: “Democracy is resilient,” but “We can’t take it for granted.“
Four years have passed since she wrote it, and we’ve seen an awful lot of plucking. So I think the urgency has increased to heed this admonition:
We’re accustomed to hearing “If you see something, say something,” Albright noted, and she said it was important to add one more component: