Albright: I was honored to deliver remarks at the funeral of Zbigniew Brzezinski-- my mentor, boss, and friend who served as President Carter's National Security Advisor from 1977-1981. My full remarks are below.
Members of the Brzezinski family, President and Mrs. Carter, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends – good morning.
My heart is sad today for I have lost a mentor, a boss, and a friend. But I am deeply honored to be able to celebrate his life alongside those who loved him and learned from him.
Each of us has a story to tell about how Zbigniew Brzezinski shaped our lives. I would like to share mine.
It begins when I was a college student at Wellesley in the late 1950s, which I now tell people was roughly half way between the invention of the iPhone and the discovery of fire.
As a daughter of Czechoslovakia, I was following events in the Soviet bloc very closely. So I leapt at the opportunity to attend a visiting lecture by an expert on the region who was also an émigré from Central Europe.
Dr. Brzezinski was only in his mid-thirties, but he offered a penetrating analysis of Soviet behavior rooted in a deep understanding of history, strategy, and statecraft.
It was obvious that this brilliant man was destined to play a leading role in U.S. foreign policy.
He soon published a book called The Soviet Bloc, which became the definitive guide to understanding America’s principal adversary.
When I started graduate school at Columbia, Dr. Brzezinski was teaching a course on comparative Communism – not a concept that anyone was talking about in 1963.
He was the best professor I ever had, and the most demanding.
He assigned us lengthy readings in Russian without questioning our ability to understand them.
He was an intellectual tour de force, he did not put up with blather, and he spoke with perfect syntax in clear paragraphs.
To this day I remember having to give a presentation on people’s democracies, and a final paper which compared how nationalism and communism had developed in Yugoslavia and Vietnam.
I recall slipping it under his locked office door with a note asking him to send me my grade.
Dread hit me the moment the note was out of sight – the same dread that would strike many of us in subsequent years: how had I spelled his name? B-r-z-e-z … or God forbid, B-r-e-z?
I still have the note, which was attached to my paper when I got it back. He had given me an A minus, and I had spelled his name correctly.
During my years at Columbia, Dr. Brzezinski, Muska, and I became good friends. I even dressed up as the rear end of a horse at one of their costume parties. But I was so deferential to authority, I never dared to call him by his first name.
“The minute I get my PhD,” I told myself. “I am going to call him Zbig.”
I finally did get my degree in May 1976.
By then I had moved to Washington. I went to New York to defend my dissertation and amazingly he was on the shuttle going back.
I went up and for the first time said, “Hi Zbig.”
He did not even notice, but I did.
Our next contact was over Christmas vacation.
I got a phone call.
“Hi Madeleine, this is Zbig. Perhaps you have heard that President-elect Carter has asked me to be his National Security Advisor.”
“Of course,” I said. “Great news.”
“Will you help me to find a place to live?”
“Gee, Zbig. I thought you were calling to offer me a job.”
“No. I am calling to ask you to find me a place to live.”
I did find him a temporary place, and then helped him and Muska find the McLean house. Later, I even found them a horse.
In 1978 Zbig offered me a position on the National Security Council staff, and I decided to leave my job with another man of Polish descent, Senator Ed Muskie. This prompted the Senator to say that I was the first woman in the world to go from Pole to Pole.
Zbig was an outstanding professor, but he was a truly remarkable boss – not only because of his ideas, but because of his conduct.
We were not staff, we were colleagues. His door was open. He wanted feedback. He didn’t yell. We called him ZB.
Our weekly staff meetings were like first-class seminars. He said so long as there were no leaks he would tell us about his meetings with the president. There were not, and he did.
We discussed the issues at hand – ranging from the pros and cons of arms control to exploring new relations with China, or to analyzing what he saw happening in the Middle East. He expected us all to contribute, whether it was our area of expertise or not. We didn’t have to stay in our lane.
Whenever he could, Zbig would remind us that he thought it was a privilege to work in the White House, that HE was in awe whenever he walked into the Oval Office, and if we ever got tired of going out to meet Marine One and the President we shouldn’t be working at the NSC.
Those who think that all he thought about was the struggle with the Soviet Union are so wrong.
He was prepared to push back against Soviet expansionism, but his horizon was much larger.
He saw the world changed by the rise of new regional powers, and insisted that attention had to be paid to them.
He embraced President Carter’s idea that support for human rights served America’s national interest best.
He led the negotiations with China which culminated in the historic breakthrough of normalization – an action which built on the Nixon administration’s opening and set the stage for China’s modern transformation.
The country was captivated by Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States, during which the Chinese leader visited the Brzezinski home, ate Muska’s food, and had caviar spilled in his lap by Mika.
Together, President Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski helped put America’s foreign policy back on track after the divisions of Vietnam.
The Carter administration deserves credit for what it accomplished – a peace agreement in the Middle East, the new relationship with China, declaring America’s opposition to apartheid, and defining our interests in the Persian Gulf through the Carter Doctrine.
In the four years that he served as National Security Advisor, Zbig’s greatest strength was his mastery of the theoretical and the practical, of the academic and the operational.
He was unflappable.
Many of you know that Zbig was once woken up in the middle of the night by a call from his military assistant, Bill Odom, who told him that 200 Soviet missiles had been fired at the United States.
Zbig was calm. “Call me back when you have the information verified, and make sure the Strategic Air Command proceeds to take off.”
Then he waited for more confirmation. With one minute left, Bill phoned again to let him know the launch was a false alarm – someone had put military exercise tapes in the computer system.
Zbig replied, “make SURE the Strategic Air Command is called back.”
In the fall of 1980, new intelligence reports showed the Soviets were going to move troops into Poland to crush the rising Solidarity movement.
Zbig had gotten to know the Pope and appreciated the Holy Father’s unique expertise on the Polish situation.
The President was meeting with his team in the Cabinet room. I was out in the hall. Zbig came out and said “Get me the Pope.”
I called the White House operators, who always knew everyone’s phone number, and asked for the Pope. They came back quickly and said that they didn’t have a number, keeping in mind the separation of church and state.
Zbig became a bit irritated and when the number was finally located he said, “this can never happen again. Put his number in my personal phone book, under P for Pope.”
After the 1980 election, Zbig asked me to come with him to CSIS to help work on his book, Power and Principle. What could be more fun than looking at all of these documents?
At one point I was asked to attend a conference where I needed a title, so I asked Zbig what it was. He immediately replied: “empress of research.”
I can honestly say that Zbig did more to shape my understanding of the world than anyone apart from my father. I never would have been able to do what I did in life without his support.
I know that I am not unique.
Looking out at this audience, I see his children and grandchildren, who made him so proud, as well as generations of statesman and foreign policy strategists whose lives he directly shaped.
Outside the walls of this cathedral, there are countless more people who have been informed by his writing, influenced by his example, and inspired by his life and its accomplishments.
One thing I always admired about Zbig was how effortlessly he managed his transition back into private life, and how prolific he was.
He never stopped pushing his thinking, his work remained relevant, his views were constantly sought, and he always continued to speak in perfect paragraphs.
He was an incredible asset to the Clinton administration during our efforts to expand NATO. One of my proudest moments was being able to call him from the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri to tell him that Poland had just been formally admitted to the alliance.
The world we inhabit today is very different from that of the Cold War era, or even the post-Cold War era. But I still looked to Zbig for help in understanding Russia’s revanchism, Central Europe’s backsliding from democracy, and the rise of new authoritarians around the world.
Zbig had predicted that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would not be peaceful, but would instead mark a return to nationalism.
In recent years he was concerned that the Soviet bloc was coming back as the Russian bloc, that the world was spinning Out of Control, and that the United States was not doing enough to combine Power and Principle with Strategic Vision.
Zbig never forgot his roots and understood that America’s strength was our diversity. And he always spoke about our common future and our country’s responsibilities.
He was a proud American. He was a realistic optimist.
Zbig, you earned your remarkable place in history.
You were our mentor, our boss, and our friend.
We will miss you.
God bless you.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.