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

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Madeleine Albright, who came to the US as a refugee and made history as the first woman to be secretary of state, has died. She was 84.

A family statement read: “We are heartbroken to announce that Dr Madeleine Albright, the 64th US secretary of state … passed away earlier today.

“The cause was cancer. She was surrounded by family and friends. We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend.”

Related: Madeleine Albright: ‘The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad’

Joe Biden saluted Albright as “a force for goodness, grace, and decency – and for freedom”.

“Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history,” the president said.

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

Born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague in 1937 but known as Madeleine since infancy, Albright fled with her family for London in 1939 after the Nazis took Czechoslovakia. She came to the US in 1948.

She was raised Catholic and only decades later discovered her parents were Jewish and that several family members were murdered in the Holocaust.

After the election of Clinton in 1992, Albright was first ambassador to the United Nations, then secretary of state. The dominant foreign policy themes of the time were the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the years before 9/11.

Albright became secretary of state in 1997, then the highest-ranking woman in the history of US government. It made her fourth in line to the presidency, though like her predecessor Henry Kissinger she would not have been able to fill the role, not being a natural born US citizen as defined in the constitution.

The state department spokesperson, Ned Price, said: “The impact that Secretary Albright ... had on this building is felt every single day in just about every single corridor. She was a trailblazer.”

Ben Rhodes, a former foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama, said: “Madeleine Albright was always exceedingly generous to and encouraging of younger people coming up in national security … she always extended a hand, opened her home and shared her wisdom.”

Val Demings, a Florida congresswoman and Senate candidate, called Albright “not only a … breaker of glass ceilings [but] a brilliant, passionate, dedicated public servant”.

Bill Clinton said “few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served” and called Albright “a passionate force for freedom, democracy and human rights”.

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

Bill Clinton’s successor, George W Bush, saluted “a foreign-born foreign minister who understood first-hand the importance of free societies for peace in our world”.

Madeleine Albright shakes hands with Vladimir Putin in Moscow in February 2000.

The threat of authoritarianism was the subject of Albright’s last book, Fascism: A Warning, published in 2018.

“Democracy is not the easiest form of government,” she told the Guardian then. “It does require attention and participation and carrying out the social contract. And it doesn’t deliver immediately. What we have to learn is how to get democracy to deliver because people want to vote and eat.”

In her book, Albright called Donald Trump “the first anti-democratic president in modern US history” and “actually really smart – evil smart, I think”.

But she cast her eye worldwide.

“The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad,” she said. “Some of them are really bad. They’re not to do with Trump; it is the evolution of a number of different trends.”

Four years on, as Vladimir Putin amassed Russian forces on the border with Ukraine, Albright published a column in the New York Times in which she recalled being the first senior US figure to meet the Russian leader, in Moscow in 2000.

“Flying home,” she wrote, “I recorded my impressions. ‘Putin is small and pale,’ I wrote, ‘so cold as to be almost reptilian.’ He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. ‘Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.’”

If Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine, Albright said, he would make a historic mistake. A month later, Russian troops are bogged down in brutal fighting and Russia is an international pariah.

On Wednesday, from Europe and in words with particular resonance as Nato faces a renewed Russian threat, Biden said: “As the world redefined itself in the wake of the cold war, we were partners and friends working to welcome newly liberated democracies into Nato and confront the horrors of genocide in the Balkans.”

Related: Joe Biden heads to Europe in effort to keep pressure on Russia

In her interview with the Guardian, Albright said the US had a problem with women in politics.

“I don’t understand it, frankly,” she said. “We are very good at being No 1 in many things and yet we are not in this and I don’t know the answer. Because there are certainly very qualified women.

“When my name came up to be secretary of state, you would think that I was an alien, you know. People actually said: ‘The Arabs won’t deal with a woman.’”

Lamenting Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Trump, she said: “I think she would have been a remarkable president. And I think that it’s very disappointing.”

In 2012, Albright was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bestowing the award, Obama said: “Once, at a naturalisation ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to [Albright] and said, ‘Only in America can a refugee meet the secretary of state.’

“And she replied, ‘Only in America can a refugee become the secretary of state.’”

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

• This article was amended on 24 March 2022 to remove an erroneous mention of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who never held the office of secretary of state.