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Munich's Message for Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright is one of only two American secretaries of state to be a naturalized citizen. And, like the German-born Henry Kissinger, the Czech-born Albright comes to her job with an attitude. Her attitude has to do with Munich. And with Yalta.

In 1938, when Albright was only a year old, Neville Chamberlain of Britain and Edouard Daladier of France signed their "peace in our time" pact with Hitler in Munich, giving him a green light to invade Czechoslovakia. Appeasement came into the lexicon as a synonym for concessions to an aggressor that only invites further aggression.

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In 1944, in Yalta in the Crimea, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt conceded to Stalin hegemony over Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia became a twice-betrayed country and Albright's family, twice-driven refugees.

Learning of her Jewish antecedents and the death of her grandparents in the Holocaust has contributed to the secretary's attitude. On a recent visit to Prague at the end of a seven-country tour, she went to the Pinkas synagogue to see the names of her relatives on the memorial wall.

Later, she said that this is "a new part of my identity," adding something "stronger, sadder, and richer to my life."

"No more Munichs" was a slogan that propelled America's best and brightest into Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling to the Communists. But Albright is frank in saying that she is conditioned more by "no more Munichs" than by "no more Vietnams." That means that when she welcomed the Czech Republic as a prospective member of NATO, she said "the injustice of the Munich Pact" was being undone. In the coming debate on NATO expansion we are likely to hear a lot more about "echoes of Munich," meaning "Don't let the Russians scare you."

"No more Munichs" means that, in dealing with some of the world's trouble spots, she will display a muscular willingness to use American power. While still ambassador to the United Nations, Albright once gave Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, something close to apoplexy by asking him what American forces were for if they were never to be used. She has argued with Defense Secretary William Cohen about keeping American troops in Bosnia, and she has advocated more active measures to capture suspected war criminals.

At the recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Kuala Lumpur, she rattled teacups by denouncing Burma's repressive military dictatorship while the Burmese foreign minister sat stone-faced.

Ask her what Munich means to her today and she says, "It means that international problems that are not dealt with early come home to America." She hasn't fully sold President Clinton on that idea, but she's working on it.

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* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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