CARBONDALE, Colorado - Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says the U.S. must maintain a leadership role in world affairs.
"Despite the fact that we have issues about the fiscal cliff and various problems and divisions between the rich and the poor here, ultimately American engagement is essential, as partners with other countries, to deal with the problems that face everybody," Albright said in a telephone interview earlier this week.
Albright will speak to a sold-out audience tonight in Carbondale as part of the Roaring Fork Cultural Council's 2012 speaker series.
In 1996, at the age of 59, President Clinton named her to be the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State.
Albright, who was raised Roman Catholic and later attended the Episcopal Church, said she thought she knew all about her family roots until she received a surprising letter.
"In November '96, just as I was about to be named Secretary of State, I got a letter from somebody that had all the dates and names and villages right, saying that their family knew my family and that they were of fine Jewish background."
Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelova in 1937 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Her family fled their homeland on March 25, 1939, just 10 days after Hitler's invasion, and lived in London during World War II.
She said she was "stunned" to receive more information about her grandparents from a Washington Post reporter half a century after the end of the war.
"It was one thing to find out about being of Jewish origin, and it's another to learn that your family had been sent to concentration camps," she said.
Her latest book, "Prague Winter: A Personal Story of War and Remembrance, 1937-1948," is a mix of family biography and bleak, wartime reality that reads like a thriller.
"The reason I wrote this book was to ... understand not only what happened to my family, but then put it into a context of what was going on during World War II and how decisions were made," she explained. "And to analyze how difficult it is to make really good, moral decisions."
She said Czechoslovakian heroes came in many forms during the war.
"Those that were in the resistance that stayed within the country had to figure out how to deal with the onslaught of the Nazis," she said. "Trying to figure out ways that they could undermine the system and fight it, I think, took incredible bravery."
She added, "They were in many ways strengthened by those that were part of the resistance but were abroad."
Those outside the country included her father, Josef Körbel, a diplomat who was part of the Czech government-in-exile. He broadcast news to the resistance fighters back home over the BBC.
Albright will talk about the book to a sold-out crowd tonight at Carbondale's Thunder River Theatre.
As Secretary of State, Albright worked for stability in Central and Eastern Europe and peace between Israel and Palestine. Her family's experiences influenced her efforts, but she said the one idea she grew up with was that the United States had to be involved in the world.
"The U.S. was not at [the 1938 conference at Munich] and terrible things happened. When the U.S. entered World War II, things reversed and we won the war," she explained. "Then, when Czechoslovakia was not liberated by the U.S. but by the Soviets, that changed everything."
She believes the world needs the United States.
"We are the largest economy, the most powerful country in the world and even though we have issues we have to deal with at home, the world needs us as ... a partner in trying to resolve some of the problems that not only plague us but plague other countries around the world."