He was both the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State. He was a beloved military leader and trailblazer who served under Democrat and Republican presidents and whose legacy also includes a now-infamous speech that helped pave the way for the Iraq war. Monday morning, Colin Powell died of complications related to COVID-19, according to his family. He was 84.
Powell’s rise to military and diplomatic prominence began in New York City. Born Colin Luther Powell to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem on Apr. 5, 1937, Powell grew up and was educated in New York City. Upon graduation from the City College of New York in 1958, Powell commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
For the first 29 years of his 35-year military career, Powell established himself as a superb Army officer serving served two tours in Vietnam and stints in South Korea and West Germany.
In 1987 Powell’s career received a significant boost when then-President Ronald Reagan appointed him deputy National Security Adviser. His success as deputy led to Reagan naming Powell his National Security Adviser in 1988.
“I thought it was a stroke of genius to recommend him for the job, one of my best decisions,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told the University of Virginia. “When I think back now on my time there, it’s not possible to conceive of my tour without Colin Powell as an integral part of it.”
After being elected president in 1989, George H.W. Bush chose Powell to chair the Joint Chiefs, making him the first African-American to hold the position. During his tenure as chairman, Powell oversaw dozens of crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
While then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein claimed that Desert Storm would lead to the “mother of all battles,” it quickly turned into a rout of Iraq forces. According to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who during Desert Storm was President George H.W. Bush’s Deputy National Security Advisor, images of carnage from the battlefield had a profound impact on Powell, a combat veteran of Vietnam.
“And Colin, basically at one of our meetings, and I can’t remember the day, essentially said, ‘This is turning from a military conflict into a rout and from a rout into a massacre, and the American army does not do massacres,’” Gates said. “He said, ‘I think that we will have completed our objectives and be prepared to stop within 24 hours.’ Then the next day, he came in, and we started talking about a cessation of fighting.”
After President Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Powell remained chairman of the Joint Chiefs under the new Democrat-led administration, a position Powell held until he retired after 35 years on active duty in 1993.
Tony Lake, National Security Adviser under President Clinton, remembered Powell as a source of sober advice and experience as Lake assumed his duties in the White House.
“Colin had been one of the first people I’d talked to when I came to Washington to take on the job,” Lake told UVA. “I remember his confirming my view of how to deal with the press. I mean, this is Colin Powell, hero of Desert Storm, even though he kind of opposed it— And he’d been national security advisor and all that.”
After Powell’s retirement, his centrist politics and public popularity led to speculation that he would run for office. However, Powell never did. Powell told CNN in 2009 that his wife was fearful of the impact that politics might have on their family life and declined to pursue that path.
“But I was a soldier. That wasn’t my concern,” Powell told CNN. “I never found inside of me the internal passion that you’ve got to have to run for elected office.”
Instead of a political run following his retirement from active duty, Powell founded “America’s Promise,” an organization focused on helping at-risk children. Although he eschewed a run at elected office, it did not mean Powell was finished serving in government. In December. 2000, President George W. Bush nominated Powell for Secretary of State.
On Jan. 20, 2001, the Senate confirmed Powell’s unanimity, making him the first African-American Secretary of State. According to the State Department, Powell intended to focus his time as Secretary of State on strengthening global alliances and reform at state. However, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, soon shifted to focus of the nation, and Powell, to prosecuting the Global War on Terror.
Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Powell was at the center of one of the more controversial moments in U.S. history. On Feb. 5, 2003, he gave a speech at the United Nations regarding potential Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction.”
Later, Powell told PBS that he appeared before the U.N. and spoke about “biological vans” and chemical weapons based on was in the National Intelligence Estimate. Additionally, Powell said that he and others worked for four days prior to his appearance at the UN and removed information that wasn’t “double and triple sourced.”
“I made the case with the director of central intelligence sitting behind me. He and his team had vouched for everything in it,” Powell said.
However, within weeks, Powell said that the Central Intelligence Agency let Powell know that the case he had laid before the U.N. began to fall apart. Powell described this development as “deeply disturbing” as Congress approved an Authorization for the Use of Military force against Iraq in October, 2002.
“You have to remember that at the time I gave the speech on Feb. 5, the president had already made this decision for military action,” Powell said. “The dice had been tossed. That’s what we were going to do.”
Ultimately, Powell lamented what he called an “intelligence failure” and that his appearance at the UN was an effort to continue working towards a diplomatic solution with Iraq, rather than make a case for war.
“I understood the consequences of that failure and, as I said, I deeply regret that the information — some of the information, not all of it —was wrong,” Powell told Al-Jazeera in 2011 regarding his 2003 presentation before the United Nations.
While Powell noted that his speech before the U.N. “blotted” his record, overall, his legacy is remembered by many as one of leadership, statesmanship, and mentoring future generations of defense leaders.
While on an overseas trip in the Republic of Georgia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered an emotional statement to traveling press on the death of Powell, noting his role as the first African-American Secretary of State and a man who was “respected around the globe” in that role.
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Austin said. “Alma [Powell’s wife] lost a great husband, and the family lost a tremendous father. And I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor.”
Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey stated his “friend and mentor” Powell, whom Dempsey said was also “a superb soldier, statesman, and lifelong public servant.”
According to former President Barrack Obama, “Everyone who worked with General Powell appreciated his clarity of thought, insistence on seeing all sides, and ability to execute. And although he’d be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served.”
Current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley also issued a statement in which he said, “He was an inspiring and dedicated Army officer, having served 35 years in uniform and concluding his military career as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was a model for the Chairmanship, the Joint Staff, and the Nation.”
Monday afternoon President Joe Biden issued a proclamation in which Biden declared that the American flag will be flown at half-staff through Oct. 22 to recognize Powell’s “life of service.”
“He believed in the promise of America because he lived it,” Biden said. “And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others. He embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat.”
Powell is survived by his wife Alma, three children and grandchildren.
Defense News reporter Joe Gould, traveling with Austin, reported from the Republic of Georgia.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.