As word came to me a few days ago of the death of Madeleine Albright (1937-2022), who served as Secretary of State (1997-2001), a flood of pleasant memories came rushing back to consciousness.
Madeleine Albright’s life provides a truly inspiring story of the triumph of the human spirit. While, as you would imagine, Madeleine and I had significant disagreements on many important issues, I always loved and appreciated Secretary Albright’s deep and abiding love for America — her adopted country.
She had that special appreciation for America and all that she stands for that so often flows through the hearts and minds of those political and religious refugees that have been embraced and welcomed on our shores.
Secretary Albright and her parents were refugees from the two deadliest ideologies of the 20th century: Nazism and communism.
Her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech diplomat who had to flee with his family after the Nazi takeover in 1938. She and her family lived in London during the Battle of Britain and The Blitz. After World War II, they returned to Czechoslovakia until the communist takeover in 1948 forced them to flee once again, arriving at Ellis Island in New York in November 1948.
Her father explained to the immigration authorities, “I cannot, of course, return to communist Czechoslovakia as I would be arrested for my faithful adherence to the ideals of democracy.” He and his family were granted asylum in the United States.
Secretary Albright was once asked about the origins of her belief in the necessity of American leadership in the world in order for freedom and human dignity to survive and flourish. She replied that she did indeed believe America was the “necessary” nation. “Why wouldn’t I,” she replied.
“When I was a little girl, U.S. soldiers crossed the ocean to help save Europe from the menace of Adolph Hitler. When I was barely in my teens, the American people welcomed my family after the communists had seized power in my native Czechoslovakia. … I love to think of America as an inspiration to people everywhere — especially to those who have been denied freedom in their own lands.”1
She believed as I do, at a philosophical level, that American exceptionalism is not a source of pride and privilege, but a doctrine of sacrifice and service in the cause of freedom and human dignity.
At a practical level, she also understood that American military and economic power, and her willingness to use them on behalf of others, was the most indispensable fact deterring the world from being dominated by thugs and tyrants.
I first met Madeleine Albright when she began her service as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1993. At that time I was serving as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013), the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ERLC had the responsibility for occupying the non-government organization (NGO) functions for the SBC at the U.N.
When she became Ambassador to the U.N. in 1993, I contacted her to convey Southern Baptist concerns about the atrocities and genocide being perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia. I was delighted to discover that, unlike the previous administration, then Ambassador Albright and the Clinton administration were strongly in favor of NATO intervention to stop the mass rapes of Muslim women and the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated by the Serbs.
I also was privileged to work with then-Ambassador Albright in trying to stop the horrific genocide that erupted in Rwanda between April and July 1994, during which somewhere between 500,000 and 650,000 people were savagely slaughtered. Ms. Albright did everything but “stand on her head” as she vainly tried to accomplish international invention to stop this crime against humanity.
To President Clinton’s credit, he later confessed that the greatest regret of his presidency (that must be a long and interesting list) was the failure of his administration to prevent the Rwandan genocide.
As I interacted with Ambassador, then Secretary, Albright, we became friends. Frankly, I do not know which one of us was more surprised as our friendship developed, but we both enjoyed interacting with each other. She was kind enough to write an endorsement for my book, The Divided States of America. What Liberals and Conservatives Get Wrong About Faith and Politics, stating:
“Dr. Land sheds light where others — from left and right — sow confusion. One can disagree on specific policies and still laud the author’s dedication to America’s founding values and his grasp of the proper role of religion in public life. The Divided States of America is essential reading for fair-minded people.”
I was delighted as I became familiar with her convictions concerning America’s unique and irreplaceable role in the world. Secretary Albright was such a refreshing departure from so many of the State Department’s diplomatic subculture too often typified by the widely-circulated joke that the State Department needed “an American desk” to advocate for America in the U.S. State Department. As long as Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State, one did not need to worry if there was an advocate for America at the Department of State.
Secretary Albright also understood the importance of religion, something else rare at the State Department. In The Mighty and the Almighty, she acknowledged that the State Department was completely blindsided by the Iranian Revolution because they didn’t take religion seriously.
As I said earlier, Secretary Albright had a deep love and appreciation for America’s unique role in the world. One afternoon during a conference in Aspen, she shared this story over tea. She told me that in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of America’s and her Allies’ victory in World War II, she had visited the parts of what is now the Czech Republic that were liberated by American soldiers. She was surprised, and touched, by the fact that as she passed by, many of the locals were waving American flags, many of them of 48-star vintage. When she asked why they were waving those 48-star flags, she was told that America’s G.I.s often handed out those flags in 1945 and the locals kept those flags as a symbol of freedom.
At that same conference, she was explaining during a seminar that being Secretary of State was like “drinking from a fire hose every day” as things come at you nonstop. She then paused and said with a big smile, “don’t get me wrong. I loved being Secretary of State!”
One personal story that delighted both of us was when I discovered the subject of her Columbia Ph.D. dissertation — "The Prague Spring.” In 1968 Alexander Dubček led a movement (The Prague Spring) to liberalize and democratize Communist Czechoslovakia (from January 1968 until Soviet tanks crushed them in August of the same year). She seemed thrilled that I was familiar with her doctoral thesis. I told her how pleased I was because I had been a big fan of Dubček and that in fact in my Princeton class yearbook poll for “man of the year” in 1968, I voted for Alexander Dubček. (Robert F. Kennedy won in a landslide.)
After she left office, we stayed in touch. In fact, she invited me on one occasion to her home in Georgetown to discuss some religious issues. Her other guest was a prominent rabbi. She explained that one of the very nice things about having been Secretary of State is “when you have a question you can go straight to the ‘experts’ to get answers.”
She was a very charming, gracious, and courageous woman who loved her country and the core values it represents.
I will miss her.
1. Albright, Madeleine. The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. Harper, 2006
Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.
Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.