Thomas Jefferson was the first secretary of state, and 62 men followed after him until 1997 and the selection of Madeleine Albright. President Clinton chose her to be his secretary of state during his second term and Albright became the first woman ever to hold that post. Now, Madeleine Albright shares her story in a new memoir titled, ” Madam Secretary.” She discusses the book on “Hardball.” Read an excerpt, below.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
I didn’t want it to end.
Hoping to freeze time, I thought back to the phone ringing one December morning and the words, “I want you to be my Secretary of State,” and to the swearing-in ceremony where my eagle pin came unstuck. I thought of little girls seeking autographs on a triumphant train trip from Washington to the United Nations in New York; of Václav Havel’s face, warm and wise, as he placed a red sash on my shoulder and a kiss on my cheek; and of names enshrined on the wall of a synagogue in Prague. I thought of buildings in Kenya and Tanzania reduced to rubble; of coffins draped with the American flag; and of President Clinton in a rumpled shirt, with glasses perched on his nose, pleading the cause of Middle East peace.
I thought of the countless meetings, some in grand palaces in the middle of the night, others in remote villages where nothing grew except the appetites of young children yet people still laughed and lived in hope. I thought of the cheering of crowds, joyous in Kosovo and Central Europe but robotic in North Korea, and of women and girls sharing their fears in a refugee camp a few miles from the Afghanistan border. The sound of tape being pulled away from giant rolls broke my reverie. We had been so busy, we hadn’t started packing until well after dark. Now boxes and bubble wrap were everywhere, sitting amid stacks of books, discarded bags of pretzels, and mementos gathered during a million miles of travel and almost three thousand days of government service. Staff members were scurrying about, preoccupied with sorting, wrapping, sealing, and labeling. Silently I withdrew into the small inner office of the secretary of state, my office for a few hours more, and went instinctively to the window.
It was the view I would miss almost as much as anything else. Circles of light on the National Mall surrounded the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Between them, obscured by the January night, were the haunting bronze figures commemorating America’s engagement in the Korean War, and the silent yet eloquent black marble of the Vietnam wall. Across the Tidal Basin I saw the dome marking our nation’s memorial to Thomas Jefferson, America’s first Secretary of State, and across the river the more distant glow of the eternal flame at John Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. I felt intense gratitude for each day I had been given to build on the tradition of honor and sacrifice celebrated in front of me.
I may not have wished it to end, but the clock was ticking and there was much to do. I went to my desk for the last time, focusing on a piece of stationery I had centered there. “Dear Colin,” I wrote. “We have been working hard and hope when you arrive in the office it is clean. It will, however, still be filled with the spirit of our predecessors, all of whom felt representing the United States to be the greatest honor. So I turn over to you the best job in the world. Good luck and best wishes. Madeleine.”
Madeleine wasn’t my original name. I was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, in a hospital in the city’s Smíchov district. In Czech, smíchov means laughter but there was little of that in Czechoslovakia during the year of my birth. It was an ominous time. I was christened Marie Jana, the first child of Josef and Anna Körbel, but I wasn’t called that. My grandmother nicknamed me Madla after a character in a popular show, Madla in the Brick Factory. My mother, with her special way of pronouncing things, modified it to Madlen. Most of the time I was called Madlenka. It took me years to figure out what my actual name was. Not until I was ten, and learning French, did I find the version that pleased me: Madeleine. However, despite all the language and country changes of my youth, I never altered my original name, and my naturalization certificate and marriage license both read “Marie Jana Korbel.”
To understand me, you must understand my father. To understand him, you must understand that my parents grew up in what they thought was a golden place. Czechoslovakia was the only functioning democracy in Central Europe during the period between the two world wars and was blessed with a wise leader, peacefully competing political parties, and a sound economy.
The new democratic republic had been born at the end of World War I, when my father was nine years old and the entire map of Europe was reshaped. Germany and its allies had been defeated. Among those allies was the Austro-Hungarian empire, which had dominated Central Europe for three centuries and was now dismantled. Fifty-one million people of diverse nationalities suddenly found themselves in new or rearranged countries in accordance with President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination.
From its beginning the new country of Czechoslovakia was linked to the United States. Its creation was actually announced in Pittsburgh in 1918. Its president and the author of its Declaration of Independence was Tomás Garrigue Masaryk, an intellectual born of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian mother, who enthusiastically embraced the principles upon which America’s political system was based. Masaryk had also married an American, Charlotte Garrigue, and taken the unusually progressive step of adopting her maiden name as his middle name.
The birth of any country presents challenges. In Czechoslovakia there were many economic and social problems, including sensitivities between the more industrially advanced Czechs and the predominantly agrarian Slovaks. There were also tensions that would steadily worsen involving the ethnic German minority in what was known as the Sudetenland, a region that curls along Czechoslovakia’s lengthy border with Germany. But Masaryk was not an ordinary president. He was a leader of strong humanist and religious convictions, and under his guidance Czechoslovakia truly did become a golden place, with a free press, quality public education, and a flourishing intellectual life. Although Masaryk died when I was four months old, in every other sense I grew up with him. My family spoke about him often, and my father was deeply influenced by Masaryk’s profound faith in democracy, his belief that small countries were entitled to the same rights as larger ones, and his respect and affection for the United States.
My father’s recollections of the 1920s and early 1930s show the pride and exuberance he felt. “As other European countries went through political and social upheavals, unstable finances, and one by one succumbed to fascism,” he was to write, “Czechoslovakia was a fortress of peace, democracy, and progress. We university students gulped the elixir of liberty. We read avidly national and foreign literature and newspapers, we attended every opening night in the National Theatre and National Opera; we wouldn’t miss a single concert of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.”
Prague had been a cultural mecca for centuries, and for young intellectuals like my parents it was an irresistible magnet. My father, growing up in the small town of Kysperk, had dreamed of moving to the great city, of going to the places where Mozart had performed and sitting in cafés where Franz Kafka had conceived his ideas. He wanted to be avantgarde — to read Karel Capek’s utopian fiction and buy paintings by Capek’s brother, Josef.
There was not even a high school in Kysperk, so at the age of twelve my father had to go to school in the larger Kostelec nad Orlicí nearby. He was a hardworking student, and always active in political and cultural life. He knew at an early age that he wanted to be a diplomat, newspaperman, or politician and planned accordingly. What he had not planned for was falling in love.
They met in high school. My mother was a little younger and quite pretty. She was petite, with short brown hair worn flapper style, and dimpled cheeks. My father had a strong, serious face and wavy hair; my mother used to say he got more handsome as he grew older. According to my father, when they met he introduced himself by saying that she was the most talkative girl in Bohemia, so she slapped him. Her name was Anna, a nickname for which was Andula, but from the time she was in high school she was known as Mandula, a contraction of my father’s name for her, Ma (My) Andula. She called him Jozka. Her parents, apparently not thrilled with the relationship, sent her away to a finishing school in Geneva. If this was a move to break them up, it almost worked. My mother wrote much later in a short essay on a yellow pad that I found at the time of her death, “Jozka was certainly a man worthwhile waiting for for seven years, before he was ready to get married.” She then added - and crossed out - “but I was not always so passioned. Couple times I was thinking of leaving this.” (Even after more than four decades in England and America, my mother’s English was heavily accented and she had her own version of grammar and idiom.)
She continued, “Very often I was wondering what was I admiring most in his personality. Was it his perseverance which he probably inherited from his father, who from a little shopkeeper became a shareholder and director of a big building company, or did I loved him because of his good heart, gentleness, unselfishness and loyalty to his family, which he inherited from his lovely mother?” Whatever it was, she never stopped adoring him. My father completed his education as rapidly as possible, studying German and French with tutors during school vacations, then spending a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, perfecting his French and getting a sense of the world beyond Czechoslovakia. At the age of twenty-three, he received a doctorate of law from Charles University in Prague, the oldest in Central Europe. Following fourteen months of obligatory military service, he was accepted by the Foreign Office and, in my mother’s account, “after few months when he had to work without pay we could get married.” The wedding took place on April 20, 1935. My mother, as was typical of the women of that era, did not have the university degrees my father had. However, she shared his cultural interests and was delighted to join in any adventure that led her out of the countryside and into Prague. They moved into an art deco apartment done up in black and white, and were soon part of the city’s café society. The following year my father was appointed press attaché to the Czechoslovak legation in Yugoslavia, and my parents were on the move again, this time to Belgrade. Yugoslavia was still a kingdom, and the fact that my father was an ardent democrat prompted him to befriend leaders of the democratic opposition, with whom he met frequently but discreetly.
“Maybe because we were young and happy,” my mother wrote of the time in Belgrade, “we have sometimes ignored the dark clouds which were forming on the political sky around us. We all were aware of it, but were hoping that somehow it will pass without catastrophy.” The young couple was optimistic enough to start a family — which brought me into the picture — but “catastrophy” was not far off. “The time of our personnel happiness was far too short,” recalled my mother. “Hitler was too strong and too aggressive and the Western Democracies at that time too weak and so the little Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia was the first to suffer, and with it the millions of innocent people.”
Czechoslovak diplomats had long counted on alliances with France and the Soviet Union for protection, coupled with their faith that the lofty principles of the League of Nations would be observed. Tragically, they had not counted on the rise of Hitler. Taking office in 1937, the country’s new President, Edvard Benes, while sharing Masaryk’s humanist philosophy, lacked his charisma and ability to inspire people. He was, in my father’s words, “a mathematician of politics.” Still, Benes did his best to warn Western Europe that Hitler’s ambition could not be appeased. In March 1938, Hitler successfully forced Austria into a union. In September, he demanded that Benes yield control over the Sudetenland. Instead of siding with Prague, the Western powers hoped to avoid war by pressing Benes to yield. In Munich, on September 29, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany signed an agreement demanding that Czechoslovakia capitulate. Two days later, the Nazis began occupying the Sudetenland. Benes resigned. England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain notoriously declared that the Munich Agreement would “ensure peace in our time.” Those five words, along with the black umbrella Chamberlain carried, have stood ever since as shameful symbols of appeasement.
Applying pressure from Berlin, the Germans installed a puppet regime in Prague that purged the government and moved to erase all vestiges of the philosophy of Masaryk and Benes. My father’s contacts with the democratic opposition in Yugoslavia had made him objectionable to Belgrade, and the new Czechoslovak Foreign Office complied quickly with a request that he be withdrawn. So in December 1938, we moved back to Prague. According to my mother, my father was given a routine desk job in the foreign ministry, but with the Nazis about to take over the rest of the country, he, like other loyal and prominent supporters of Benes, faced a grim and uncertain future. Since Benes and several of his ministers had already fled, my father began looking for a way out as well. “To leave Czechoslovakia immediately was technically impossible,” my mother recorded. “There was complete chaos in Prague. Communication was stopped for a little while, banks were closed, friends were arrested. We learned from competent sources that Jozka’s name is also on some list of people who should be arrested.” For a short time I was sent away to the country to stay with my maternal grandmother, while my parents left their apartment and spent each night with different friends and the days on the streets and in restaurants, planning our escape. “It was mostly during the nights when Gestapo arrested the people,” my mother recalled. “With all the possible and impossible planning and with the help of some good friends and lots of luck and little bribes the last plan worked and we managed to get the necessary Gestapo permission to leave the country.” Speed was essential. On March 15, 1939, the German army had marched into the Czechoslovak capital. Ten days later, on March 25, my grandmother brought me to Prague. By 11 p.m. that evening my parents and I were on a train out of the country with two small suitcases — all they were able to pack in our hurry. Simply and chillingly my mother wrote, “That was the last time we saw our parents alive. It took us six years before we could return.”
We went first to Belgrade and then onward to London, arriving in May, around my second birthday. The city was flooded with foreigners looking for work, so my father was relieved when, not long after we arrived, Jan Masaryk, son of the former president and foreign minister of what was to become the Czechoslovak government in exile, came to London. Masaryk rented a small office and hired young former employees of the Foreign Office — among them my father. In July, Benes arrived. The goal of the exiles was to work through British radio and newspapers to publicize the facts about Hitler’s occupation and to rally fellow Czechoslovaks. I had always thought that my parents had acclimatized to life in England, but when I read my mother’s recollections, I saw differently. “We were surrounded only by Czech people, without making friends with English people with only a very few exceptions. . . . I have always admired their honesty, fairness in time of shortages, their courage in time of bombing, their determination to fight Hitler under very unfavorable conditions, but it took me longtime before I could understand some of their way of life and was feeling comfortable in their midst. . . . But just as we were waiting for our time to be able to return home they were waiting for the time when all the foreigners will be able to leave them.” My earliest memories are of an apartment on Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill Gate. My parents slept on a bed pulled out from the wall, and we had a green telephone. When I heard my father broadcasting over the BBC, I thought he was in the radio. He had been put in charge of information for the government in exile, and his speeches were also beamed into our homeland for several hours every day. Other Czechoslovak families lived in our apartment house, which had been built especially for refugees. The neighbors sometimes fed me brown bread with pork grease and salt. We joined them in the basement at night when the air raid sirens sounded. I sang songs like “One Hundred Green Bottles Hanging on the Wall” and we all slept on makeshift bunks. My parents said it was good to be in a cellar, but there were pipes filled with gas and hot water running through it, and I realize now that we would not have survived had the building been hit.
This was when I had my first taste of fame. The émigré community — with the help of the Red Cross — wanted to make a film about the plight of refugee children, and I was chosen to play the starring role. The filming was done at a shelter not unlike the one in which we stayed. I took the assignment seriously and as payment received a pink stuffed rabbit that comforted me throughout the war.
We were not the only family members in England. My father’s older brother, John, his wife, Ola, and their children, Alena and George, had settled into a Howards End-like country house in Berkhampstead. We lived with them for a short period before moving to London, but the brothers had vastly different personalities and squabbled constantly. When they finally stopped arguing, they stopped speaking. Dása, the eleven-year-old daughter of my father’s sister Greta, came from Czechoslovakia to live with us. Occasionally during the first couple of years, we received letters from my three surviving grandparents, which my parents read aloud. “We love you, and we’ll see one another after the war.” Later we received word my mother’s sister Mána had died from kidney disease. I remember because my mother was inconsolable.
Although the worst of the Blitz was over, my parents wanted to move out of London. We stayed briefly in Beaconsfield, the hometown of Queen Victoria’s influential Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It was there on October 7, 1942, that my sister Kathy was born. Then it was on to Walton-on-Thames, about an hour’s ride from London, where we lived in a brick house with a strange prickly plant out front called a monkey puzzle tree. I went to Ingomar School, donning its brown and white uniform, including a tie and a straw hat with a striped hatband. For lunch every day I ate cold meat and bubble and squeak (a mixture of leftover potatoes and cabbage, all fried up, so named because of the sound it made in your stomach after you ate). I was busy becoming a proper little English girl. Because I spoke English better than my mother, I was often dispatched with ration books four long blocks and across a bustling street, pushing Kathy in her pram, to the greengrocer’s. I received generally good grades but embarrassingly — given my future career — received a D minus in geography.
Even though Walton-on-Thames was in the countryside, the war was still very much a part of our lives, providing both the drama and the routine. My father was an air raid warden. We acquired a steel table, known as a Morrison shelter, after Churchill’s Home Secretary Herbert Morrison. It was the latest thing, advertised as able to save a family hiding under it when a house was bombed. The table became the center of our life. We ate on it, played around and on top of it, and when the sirens sounded, pulled down the blackout shades and slept under it. From my perspective then, all this was normal life: war didn’t keep me from enjoying my days or learning how to share high tea with our English friends.
As difficult or frightening as any situation might be, my parents smoothed the edges. They wanted to make sure my sister and I felt safe and comfortable, and we did. They had the love and ability to make the abnormal seem normal - such as conversing in one language at home and another at school, and going as a family to swim at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, even though there were huge black steel barricades on many beaches to keep the Germans from invading. I also found nothing unsettling about the Sunday gatherings of their Czechoslovak friends. After everyone had eaten, the men walked up and down our small garden in twos and threes in earnest discussion. They paced with their hands clasped behind their backs as European men do, my father always with a pipe in his mouth and a puff of smoke around his head. It was not until I was in college and wrote my honors thesis on the postwar period in Czechoslovakia that I came to understand what my father’s job had been during the war, how the government in exile had functioned, and how vital the issues were that had been debated so heatedly in our backyard those Sunday afternoons. I don’t remember the moment I learned the war had ended and we would be going back home. I do know there were joyous celebrations. We talked about nothing else. The table in our dining room was now just a table, not a civil defense shelter. We were about to begin, we thought, a truly normal life.
My father was on the first plane to liberated Czechoslovakia, along with President Benes and his team. My mother, sister, cousin Dása, and I followed some weeks later in the belly of a bomber, an experience so terrifying it took me several years to overcome an intense fear of flying. Since the Czechoslovak leadership had been forced to capitulate after Munich, the Germans had not bombed the capital, so Prague remained intact and to my eight-year-old eyes magical. The country as a whole, however, had suffered irredeemable loss. The economy was crippled. The people had experienced six years of demoralizing occupation. The Jewish population had been all but destroyed.
Because of my father’s service in London and his position in the new government, we were given a beautiful apartment on Hradcanské Námestí (or Square), not far from Prague Castle, where President Benes lived and worked. The apartment was large and bright, with leaded windows, and came with surprisingly splendid furnishings. My parents told us they had learned that my grandparents had died during the war. They said their parents had been old, and that’s what happened when you got old. My mother cried often but, when I asked, would only say, “It’s just that I am so glad to be back home.” My cousin Dása continued to live with us. Her parents too had died, a reality I simply accepted.
Soviet soldiers roamed the streets. My parents were fearful of them, while privately mocking their boorishness. I was told an American plane had accidentally dropped the only bomb that had fallen on Prague. Given that I had grown up learning that the Germans were bad and the Americans and Russians good, I found this totally confusing. My father worked a few blocks away, at the foreign ministry, and walked me to school. I had loved school in England but hated it in Prague; my teachers seemed equally unimpressed by me. I spent most of my time being sent to stand in the corner. When my parents asked what I had done wrong, my teacher told them I had been arrogant. “How so?” they asked. The teacher replied that I had told her she had a pretty dress. In England this would have been a pleasantry, but on the continent it was unacceptable for a child to speak so informally to a teacher. Before the war, Czechoslovak freedom had been crushed by Fascists; now it was endangered by Communists. The Czechoslovak Communist Party had been founded in 1921, four years after the Bolshevik Revolution had transformed Russia. It survived because Czechoslovakia was an egalitarian country and many of its citizens were taken in by the Communist claim to be protectors of the working class. There were also many Czechs and Slovaks who identified with “Mother Russia” as a nation of fellow Slavs. After the war, the party gained strength because the Western powers, not Moscow, were held responsible for the betrayal at Munich. The Soviet Union had also been an ally in fighting the Nazis, and General Dwight Eisenhower had agreed to let the Red Army liberate Prague. As a result the Communists became the single largest political party and even achieved a plurality of the vote in the 1946 elections. Given the desire for national unity, and the country’s parliamentary system, Benes agreed to a coalition government headed by a Communist prime minister and composed of both Communists and a variety of democratic parties along with Jan Masaryk, an independent, as foreign minister. Benes and those who supported him, such as my father, wanted Czechoslovakia to return to the democratic values of the prewar era. The president made the mistake of believing Czechoslovak Communists had the same goal. Communists were put in charge of the police and ministry of defense, and a Slovak Communist was appointed Masaryk’s deputy. With direction and assistance from Moscow, the Communists penetrated key institutions, including the trade unions, large industries, and the media. The democratic parties, on the other hand, were neither united nor coordinated.
Elsewhere in Europe, the great Cold War between East and West had begun. The Soviets were systematically taking over Eastern Europe. After their 1946 success, Moscow believed the Czechoslovak Communists could win power legally through elections, creating a model for success in Western Europe, where France and Italy also had large Communist parties. Once again Czechoslovakia was caught in the middle. Benes tried to put the best face on this by calling his country a bridge between East and West, partly belonging to both. Masaryk thought little of this image, saying to England’s King George VI, “Horses walk over bridges and often litter them with droppings.” I remember Masaryk as a kind man, with a strong sense of fun and dry sense of humor. When I saw him at official occasions, he usually had his right arm in a sling. I asked my father, “Does the foreign minister have a broken arm?” “No,” my father replied. “He wears the sling because he refuses to shake hands with Communists.” My father had a brief stint as Masaryk’s chief of staff and then, in the autumn of 1945, he was named Czechoslovakia’s representative to Yugoslavia and neighboring Albania, attaining the rank of ambassador at the unusually young age of thirty-six. So after only a few months in Prague, we returned to Belgrade.
My father found a Yugoslav nation that was, in his words, “worn out.” More than one-tenth of the population had died during the war fighting the Germans or one another. My father had looked forward to seeing old friends, but now many had become devout Communists and avoided him. He spoke to Serbs who complained bitterly of massacres committed by Croats during the war, and about the steady erosion of their national identity under the dictatorial Communist government of Josip Broz, better known as Marshal Tito. He met Croats who opposed the very existence of Yugoslavia and desired a separate, ethnically distinct nation. By coincidence I would later spend a large portion of my years in government dealing with the same problems my father encountered in 1945 and about which he wrote in his first book, Tito’s Communism. His affection for the country was deep; he even dedicated his book “To the Yugoslav people, who often in their tormented history have shed blood for the common cause of freedom and democracy, which have been denied to them.” The Czechoslovak embassy in Belgrade was on a main thoroughfare, across from the central post office, a block or two down from the Parliament building. It seemed very grand to me, and indeed it was. On the side of the building fronting the main street was a long balcony, where we stood for official parades. The entrance was guarded by Tito’s Partisans in fatigues, and the ambassador’s residence was off the large courtyard.
We had a butler, a chauffeur, a cook, and maids. Because my father did not want me to go to school with Communists, I had a governess. While the building had not been bombed during the war, it had been occupied by the regional high command of the German army, and pictures, rugs,
furniture, and a tapestry had disappeared with the command. Only office equipment had been left behind, so my parents had to use many of the furnishings given to them from our apartment in Prague.
Although life was completely different from what we had known in London, or even during the short period back in Czechoslovakia, my parents seemed to adjust easily. When he was not at an official lunch, my father ate with us in the family dining room, after which the chauffeur often drove us in our black Tatra, a Czechoslovak car with a fin on the back like a Batmobile, to the woods outside the city, where we took long walks. Despite the political confusion and terrible poverty around them, my parents seemed to me much happier than they had been in England. After all, the diplomatic life was what they had been preparing themselves for, and we were all together. We were also excited by the arrival of my baby brother, John, on January 15, 1947. My mother managed the embassy staff and made sure we all had food. Sometimes she sent to the country for live lambs, which we played with in the kitchen until they became dinners my sister and I declined to eat.
In her inimitable way, my mother refused to do things according to protocol. After formal dinners, she liked to invite a small group back to the family dining room and serve Czechoslovak sausages, known as párky. On one occasion she did this with Tito. Apparently the president’s tasters opposed the whole idea — until my mother took one sausage, cut it in half, ate hers, and presented the Communist dictator with the other. The formidable leader gobbled it down.
My mother renewed acquaintance with some of her old friends and drank Turkish coffee with them, not so much because she enjoyed the coffee but because she loved turning the cups over and telling fortunes from the coffee grounds. I always thought this one of her principal eccentricities but later found that many Czechs believed both in fortune-telling and astrology. As the daughter of the ambassador, I became the “official child.” Bearing bouquets of flowers and wearing my national costume - a white blouse with large puffy sleeves embroidered in yellowy orange, a pink patterned pleated skirt, navy blue embroidered apron, and lots of ribbons - I accompanied my father to the airport to greet arriving officials. My “duties” allowed me to meet some historic figures at an early age; I even had my own encounter with Tito, presenting him with white roses when he came for a National Day reception.
I was ten years old when my parents concluded that academically I had gone as far as I could go being taught by a governess. I was too young to enroll at the Gymnasium in Prague, so they announced they would send me to boarding school in Chexbres, Switzerland, to learn French. I reacted as most ten-year-olds would. I did not want to leave home. When we stopped in Prague en route to Switzerland, I became literally sick from anxiety and was late for the start of school. My mother, totally out of character, insisted I was well enough to go. I cried during the entire plane ride to Zurich, where we spent the night. I had heard that Zurich was the center for treating polio, so the next morning when I woke up, I said my legs hurt so much I could not move. My mother didn’t buy it and found a doctor who pronounced me well. There was nothing left but to go on to school. I arrived at Prealpina Institut pour Jeunes Filles in September 1947. The school was housed in a large building on beautiful grounds overlooking Lake Geneva. My room had a view of the lake — and three roommates. I was given to believe I could not get anything unless I asked for it in French, of which I then knew nothing. For a while I was miserable. Eventually I figured out the language and, ever the diligent student, ended up doing quite well. I soon developed the habit of taking my assignments too seriously. I was made responsible for room inspections, an apple polisher’s duty to be sure, but I took matters even further. The room inspection turned into a personal inspection, and I insisted the girls show me whether they had clean hands and nails before they could go to meals. It didn’t take long before they made their feelings plain, and I had to work my way back into my friends’ good graces. I made my first American friend in Prealpina, a girl with blond hair, a bright smile, and a gray Parker pen, all of which I coveted.
The headmaster of the school was supposed to give us two francs allowance every week and let us go into the village. He did it only sporadically, but when we did go, I always bought the triangular Toblerone chocolate, which I still love. We walked a couple of miles to church every Sunday, no matter how cold, and it was in Switzerland that I learned to ice-skate and ski - with the same boots. Much later my well-equipped American children doubled over in laughter when I told them I had once attached my ice skates to my ski boots with a key.
Back home the Czechoslovak experiment with a coalition government consisting of democrats and Communists was falling apart. The struggle for political control was relentless. The Communists had been on the upswing, but now there was a backlash against their heavy-handed effort to expand influence throughout society. As their electoral prospects receded, they turned to more openly coercive techniques. Moscow also became more direct in pressuring Prague.
In the summer of 1947, the United States announced a massive program of assistance — the Marshall Plan — to help European nations recover from the devastation of war. Every country in Europe, including the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, was invited to participate. The Soviets were distrustful, seeing the plan more as an American Trojan Horse than as a means for economic recovery. In Prague Benes, who wanted Czechoslovakia to participate, formally accepted the American invitation. Jan Masaryk, in Moscow on official business, was summoned by Stalin and informed that his country would not be permitted to take part in the plan. Back in Prague a bitter and sarcastic Masaryk told colleagues, “It’s a new Munich. I left for Moscow as minister of foreign affairs of a sovereign state. I am returning as Stalin’s stooge.” Despite this setback Benes remained hopeful, placing his faith in elections scheduled for May 1948. When my father visited the president in January of that year, he tried to warn Benes that the Communists would use every means to take over. As they discussed who was trustworthy and who wasn’t, Benes said, “Don’t worry. The danger of a Communist putsch has passed. Return to Belgrade and carry on.” My father wrote, “Those were President Benes’ last words to me. I saw him no more.” Benes was wrong. Determined not to wait for elections, the Communists branded democratic leaders as reactionaries, distributed arms to militants, demanded the immediate and radical socialization of the economy, and sent packages with explosives in an unsuccessful attempt to kill three government ministers, including Masaryk. Weakened by two strokes, Benes couldn’t compete against a determined foe not playing by the rules. In February, a dozen democratic cabinet ministers submitted their resignations in an attempt to force immediate elections. Instead the Communists used mobs, the media, and militias to coerce Benes into agreeing to a new government of national unity. The coup of February 25 put real control in the hands of Communists, where it would remain for more than four decades. On March 10, 1948, Masaryk’s body was found beneath the broken window of his apartment in the Czechoslovak foreign ministry. The authorities declared it suicide. My parents — and most Czechoslovak democrats — believed it was murder. On June 7, President Benes resigned. The Soviet bloc was complete. To prevent Communism from making further inroads in Europe, the Truman administration joined Canada and friends across the ocean in forging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — NATO.
For my parents, the coup meant the end of their dream of a free Czechoslovakia. I did not see them until later that spring when they came to Switzerland to inform me that my father had a new assignment, this time with the UN. Shortly before the coup, he had offered to resign as ambassador to Yugoslavia on the grounds that only a Communist could possess the confidence of the regime in Belgrade. There was some discussion at the time about his becoming ambassador to France, but he was instead offered a position representing Czechoslovakia on a new UN commission dealing with the disputed status of Kashmir, a province claimed by both the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan. My mother, sister, and brother would be moving to London while my father was in South Asia. My parents presented this calmly, as if it were a routine course of events. When school finished, I joined my family in London, where we lived in a dark basement apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen. My father wrote us cheery letters extolling the beauties of Srinagar in Kashmir, and telling us about the monkeys in New Delhi he swore came into his hotel room. I can’t imagine what he wrote to my mother, but I do know he was looking for, and found, a way for us to go to America, where he would join us as soon as he could.
Thus began a new chapter in Europe’s history and my life. For the second time in less than a decade, my parents were forced to leave their homeland behind. I, at eleven years old, together with my mother and siblings, prepared to cross the Atlantic. We had booked passage on a giant ocean liner, the SS America, and I was looking forward eagerly to the five-day voyage. We boarded in Southampton at night. When we awoke, we had a huge breakfast of bacon and eggs, and only later noticed that it was so calm because we were docked in Le Havre. That breakfast was our last full meal for a long time. Once we started moving, we were all seasick. My mother took to her bed for the entire journey, while we children subsisted on baked potatoes.
Our ship passed through a November sea. The winds were strong and the waves high. Enormous black clouds gathered overhead, bringing pelting rain and freezing cold. We peered through the portholes and only rarely ventured out on deck. I thought the trip I had anticipated so much would never end. Only when we neared our destination did the skies clear. Finally, on November 11, 1948, Armistice Day, we steamed into New York Harbor. There was the Statue of Liberty. Holding my sister’s hand, I stared in awe at the welcoming figure.
Excerpted from “Madam Secretary: A Memoir,” by Madeleine Albright. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Miramax Books.
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