Madeleine Albright: refugee childhood influenced key foreign policy decisions


There's a very special guest in this week's One on One - Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born former U.S. Secretary of State. Born Marie Korbelova in Prague in 1937, Madeleine Albright was forced to flee her native country twice, first from the Nazis, then from the Communists. She later rose to the top of the U.S. political establishment, becoming the first ever woman to head the State Department. Only recently did she learn that she came from a Jewish family, and that three of her grandparents had perished in the Holocaust. Madeleine Albright was in Prague to launch the Czech translation of her memoirs: Madam Secretary, and she paid a visit to the Czech Radio studios, where Rob Cameron interviewed her for Radio Prague.

Madeleine Albright and Rob CameronMadeleine Albright and Rob Cameron Many listeners would know about your Czech roots. Deep down, how Czech do you really feel?

"Good question. It's unclear to me. I feel very Czech, by my roots, and I love being here, and when I'm here I feel very Czech and very proud to have been born here. But I so wanted to be an American. I was so glad to be there when I was eleven years old, and I worked very hard to become an American. And I can't believe that this little Czech girl actually became the American Secretary of State. So I'm both things, and proud of both."

You were forced to flee your homeland twice - first from the Nazis, then from the Communists. You were eleven when you left Czechoslovakia for the last time. Is there one enduring memory from that flight that still stays with you today?

"Actually it wasn't directly from Czechoslovakia. My father had been ambassador to Yugoslavia, and I was in school in Switzerland, but the main thing that sticks with me is what it was like to come to America and to go by the Statue of Liberty and then arrive in America. Mainly I was a confused 11-year-old, because I had spent the war in England with my parents, I had been in an air-raid shelter, then I was the daughter of an ambassador, and then I was away at school, so it was really wonderful to arrive in a country after all that and be welcomed there."

When you are here, and you've come back quite a few times, does it really feel like home? Or were you away too long for that?

"Well, it depends on the time. I used to come here quite a lot, even during the Communist period, because I did things for the United States Information Agency, and it didn't feel at all like home. It felt very strange, and everybody looked at me in a different way. It felt much more like home when I first came in 1990, and first met President Havel, and I was just so proud of the way people were remembering the good things about the First Republic that I'd grown up with and were making such a great effort for democracy. But it's mixed, it's very mixed. I enjoy coming to Prague. I try to imagine what my parents' life was like here in the 30s, when they lived here and were part of intellectual Prague."

I find it extraordinary that you're still able to speak - so well - the language of a country that you left at the age of eleven. How did you manage to maintain your Czech over the decades?

Madeleine Albright, photo: CTKMadeleine Albright, photo: CTK "First of all I did speak with my parents. Though what happened is what happened to many émigrés is that you start making some kind of language up: you fit in an English word whenever you can't think of the Czech one. For me it started as an oral language, then I wrote my thesis at Wellesley College about the Communist takeover, and then I wrote my dissertation on the role of the press in 1968, so I had to do a lot of reading in Czech. The way I really learnt a Czech that was not that of a ten-year-old was after the Velvet Revolution, and I came here, or Czechs would come and see me, and so it's evolved. And I'm just so thrilled that it works when I'm here. I forget a word here and there, but I'm just so excited that people say and are surprised that I speak good Czech."

I've heard you speak Czech at a number of public occasions, and you do speak very informal Czech. It's always struck me that you use an informal type of Czech that people seem to like as well.

"Well, it's something that I've picked up because I've learnt it from friends. But I never actually had to have negotiations in Czech. Even as an American representative, whenever we really had serious negotiations I always spoke in English."

You're here to launch the Czech translation of your memoirs, Madam Secretary. It's a very candid and in parts very moving book, particularly when you talk about the breakdown of your marriage. Why did you feel the need to bare your soul in this way?

"First of all, I decided that diplomacy and public service is made up of people. And that it's very important to see who the people are, where they come from, what their motivations are. So I thought it was important to do it for that reason. The other reason I did it was that in addition to writing this book for historic reasons - I think anybody who's participated in history has an obligation to write about it - is that it is a women's story as well. A lot of women were very nice when I became Secretary and felt that I was a role model. I felt that they needed to know that I went through a really horrible time and came out pretty well at the end. That's why I decided I had to be honest. There's no value in writing your memoirs if you're not honest."

Were you conscious of breaking down walls and breaking down prejudices on your journey to the top of the political ladder?

Madeleine Albright and Rob CameronMadeleine Albright and Rob Cameron "I was and I wasn't. I was not one of these people who was always angry about something. I did in fact think about the fact that I was very early in terms of having important jobs, though I had a lot of unimportant jobs along the way. Especially when I became Secretary: I then realised that that was historic and that people cared that I was the first woman, so I did think about it at the point a lot."

Indeed it's hard to imagine Condoleezza Rice becoming National Security Adviser if you hadn't kicked down the door first. Is the door very much open now for women in politics in the United States?

"I think it is. I hope it is. I don't want to be a historical accident. I do want to make sure that other women get a chance, and I've said many times that there's a special place in Hell reserved for women who don't help other women."

What was your biggest mistake as Secretary of State?

"As Secretary, I actually don't feel I made that many mistakes, not even big ones or small ones. I do think that I made some mistakes when I was at the U.N., the biggest one being on Rwanda. I've gone over that very much in my head. Not because I think the United States could have done more given the reality of the situation: we couldn't have gotten there fast enough. But for my own soul, I wish that I had argued more about it. I did argue and got some instructions changed, but I admire Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander who really kept fighting and saying that things were very bad there. I have regrets as Secretary of State. I wish that we had been able to finish the Middle East peace process; we came very close. But in writing this book and reviewing the record, without sounding self-satisfied, I think we did a pretty good job."

It's often been said that United States foreign policy under Madeleine Albright was strongly influenced by your own life and your own personal experience as a refugee, for example the bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo. Do you think that's true?

"Yes I do, and one of the reasons I felt it was important to write about myself was so that people would know what baggage I came with. I do think that what I learnt as a result of being born here was that when the United States was not involved, as in Munich, terrible things happened. When the United States came into the war, things were reversed. When the decision was made to let the Soviet Union "liberate" this country, terrible things happened. So my theme and my life has been the importance of American engagement, and to stand up when you can in whatever way. So yes, people are definitely right in saying that."

While you reached top of the political ladder in the United States, the very last rung - President of the United States - was always out of bounds because you were not born in America. Ironically, because you were born here, you could become President of the Czech Republic, and it was your friend Vaclav Havel who was the first to suggest it. Did you take the idea seriously then, and would you take it seriously again in the future if the opportunity presented itself?

"Well it's hard not to take it seriously when somebody you admire as much as I admire President Havel suggested it. But as I explain in the book, I am a very proud American, and I will stay that. The other part that makes me think that it's not appropriate to take it seriously is that I didn't live here through the worst times. No matter how much I know about this country, and how much I've studied it and how Czech I feel, I really do think that the president of this country has to be somebody who lived through those horrible Communist times; the distrust and the horror and the poverty and the intellectual strictures that existed here. I love this country, and I would love to be of any help I can, but I think that it's not appropriate."