For Albright and Rice, Josef Korbel Is Tie that Binds Josef Korbel educated two secretaries of state: his daughter, Madeleine Albright, and, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, his star pupil at the University of Denver, Condoleezza Rice. The two women discuss the legacy of their shared teacher.
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For Albright and Rice, Josef Korbel Is Tie that Binds

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For Albright and Rice, Josef Korbel Is Tie that Binds

For Albright and Rice, Josef Korbel Is Tie that Binds

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

If you've never heard of Josef Korbel, you're not alone. Korbel, who died in 1977, isn't exactly a household name. An academic, he spent much of his life teaching international politics at a university far from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. His books weren't bestsellers. He wasn't a familiar face on television, yet his influence on the conduct of American foreign policy was and continues to be profound.

As NPR's Guy Raz explains that's because of his two most famous students.

GUY RAZ reporting:

The year is 1964. Czechoslovak refugee Josef Korbel is already an established academic at the University of Denver. In this old recording, he's delivering a lecture on the merits of encouraging the spread of American style freedom abroad.

Mr. JOSEF KORBEL (University of Denver): - that freedom knows no national barriers and that it scatters and deepens in all directions. An understanding of this changing face of freedom unveils the secrets and progress into peace.

RAZ: Fast-forward now, 1997. Secretary of State's Madeleine Albright's confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former Secretary of State): I believe that the United States is the indispensable nation.

RAZ: Now to June 2005. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Cairo, where she says -

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East. And we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

RAZ: It's a thought that could have come from the lips of Josef Korbel. It makes sense. He was, after all, Condoleezza Rice's undergraduate and graduate mentor at the University of Denver.

Ms. RICE: Well, I was a lost music major, to be truthful about it. I had decided that I was not going to be a great concert pianist, but I didn't know what I was going to be. And I wandered into - spring quarter, junior year - a course in international politics taught by Josef Korbel. And he was a wonderful professor because he was a great storyteller. And I was just taken with him and I thought, this is just terrific. This is what I want to study.

RAZ: Madeleine Albright's recollections go back further. She was, after all, Josef Korbel's daughter.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, my earliest memory was in England, during the war. And he was a person who actually was quite formal looking. I always thought of him in a suit coat and a tie and a white shirt.

RAZ: Korbel was an up-and-coming Czech diplomat in 1948, just as communists staged a coup in his country. He fled Europe and landed in Denver, Colorado, where he went on to found the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Today, his star pupil works out of a well-appointed office in the State Department. It's a large room decorated with antique American furniture, a space that projects power. And Condoleezza Rice, without a doubt, is one of Josef Korbel's most powerful disciples.

Ms. RICE: He was a very strong proponent of values. Whenever he was disappointed in America, it was because in '56 in Hungary, America had not been there for the Hungarians that rose up or how could Czechoslovakia have happened in '68 and the western world, led by America, not done anything about it?

RAZ: Madeleine Albright describes a childhood where foreign policy talk dominated dinner table conversation.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: There were foreign policy discussions all the time. About, clearly, what had happened as a result of World War II, some of the mistakes that had been made in terms of the United States not liberating Czechoslovakia. And then had a lot of discussions, obviously, about Central and Eastern Europe and about the Soviet Union.

RAZ: Madeleine Albright's gleaming Washington office still carries some of the aura of her former job as Secretary of State. But it is her father, Josef Korbel, a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia, whose legacy continues to reverberate inside the halls of the State Department, even today.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: The story was that - my father died in 1977 and he really was, by then, he played a very important role in Denver. Anyway, there were lots of tributes and lots of flowers and among them was a container, ceramic container, in the shape of a piano with philodendron leaves coming out of it. And I said to my mother, where did this come from? And she said, it's from your father's favorite student, Condoleezza Rice. That's the first time I heard of her.

I did not meet her for a long time. I did call her in 1987, when I was working for Michael Dukakis, because my job at that stage was that, among other things, to find foreign policy advisors for the campaign. And so I called her and she said, Madeleine, I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm a Republican. And I said, Condi, how could you be? We had the same father.

RAZ: But like fraternal twins who look different, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright also drew very different lessons from the teachings of Josef Korbel.

How does your world view today reflect what you learned from Josef Korbel?

Ms. RICE: I do think understanding this universal appeal of democratic values, this universal desire for liberty, the fact that people who are denied it and have to fight for it are often fiercer defenders than people who are born to it.

RAZ: It's a question I put to Madeleine Albright a few days earlier.

How does your world view today and your world view as Secretary of State reflect your father's?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, mine in the following way, which is definitely about the importance of the role of the United States. There's no question about that. And definitely a sense of the necessity for a moral foreign policy. And the fact that the United States stands for something that needs to be reflected.

RAZ: The question, of course, is what that something is. His students, who are scattered throughout diplomatic offices around the world, probably think about this question a lot. Condoleezza Rice admits that she still thinks about it herself when dealing with the Iraq question or the war on terrorism.

Do you ever wonder what he would have done in your situation, if he were sitting in your chair and he had to deal, confront the challenges, the global challenges that you obviously have to confront?

Ms. RICE: I don't know what he would have done. I wouldn't try to second guess. He was a great diplomat, but I know that his heart was in the belief that democracy belonged to everybody. That it wasn't just something just for Americans or for the British people or for French people. But he clearly believed it for Eastern Europe.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: What he would be very upset about is what is upsetting me, which is that it has ruined America's reputation. He cared so deeply about America and felt so strongly about what an important source of authority it was.

Ms. RICE: When we face questions about why you are willing to risk so much on behalf of people in the Middle East, Iraqis or Afghans, it's hard for me to believe that he would have wanted them abandoned to tyranny.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I think I channel with him better than Dr. Rice does, at this point, but the main thing, I think, he would've been really upset about is that there had not been enough forward thinking.

RAZ: But it's probably fair to say Josef Korbel would've been astounded to see his two protégés one day become the most important diplomatic officers in America.

Dr. RICE: It is quite an irony. Madeline and I talk about it a lot. That this man did produce the two women Secretaries of State, first of all, and I think something that we do share, which is a strong belief that democratic values are at the heart of peace and stability in the world.

RAZ: And Josef Korbel, the fiercely anti-communist liberal, would've transmitted that idea above all to his favorite student, Condoleezza Rice, and the perfect daughter, Madeline Albright.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I think he would've been proud of Condi, but I think he would not have liked the idea of her being a Republican. My father was pretty partisan. But it's just a very lovely feeling.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz, NPR News in Washington.

NORRIS: You can hear extended interviews with Secretaries Albright and Rice, as well as an excerpt of a speech by Josef Korbel, at our website,

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