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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": Colin Powell

Colin Luther Powell became a rarity among public servants, namely an administrator and general officer in the United States Army who was a recognizable public figure. The average citizen knew his name. Many Americans viewed him as supremely competent and self-assured. In a nation where many citizens distrust government and view its institutions as inefficient and perhaps even corrupt, Powell was known as a straight shooter, an accomplished public figure who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Desert Storm, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and secretary of state during President George W. Bush’s first administration. As he admitted, the only major “blot” on his distinguished record was a presentation that he made before the United Nations Security Council in 2003 justifying the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on dubious intelligence that he knew or should have known was faulty. I discuss Powell's life and career in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement."

He was born in Harlem, New York, on April 5, 1937, to Luther Theophilus Powell and Maud Ariel (Arie) McKoy (Powell), Jamaican immigrants. Colin’s parents worked modest jobs, with Luther laboring as a shipping clerk and Maud as a seamstress. The family moved several times during his early years before settling in the South Bronx. Young Colin grew up there and attended Morris High School, graduating in 1954.

After high school, he attended the City College of New York. At CCNY, Powell participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He found it much to his liking. As he recalled in his 1995 memoir, My American Journey, “I stumbled through math, fumbled through physics, and did reasonably well in, and even enjoyed, geology. All I ever looked forward to was ROTC.” Aside from the realization that the military offered the most opportunities for advancement for a person of color during that era, Powell understood all too well his own character. “The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved,” he explained. “I became a leader almost immediately. I found a selflessness within our ranks that reminded me of the caring atmosphere within my family. Race, color, background, income meant nothing.” As an ROTC cadet at CCNY, Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, the campus fraternal organization for reserve officers.

One benefit of his ROTC training was that the army offered Powell a career following graduation. For a young black man coming of age in the 1950s, most opportunities were limited by the color line. Powell had never encountered the vicious racism found in some places in the United States at the time, but he was aware of the dangers and drawbacks in trying to forge a professional career under Jim Crow laws. The military was desegregated and seemed to be exactly what he needed. Following college graduation in 1958, Powell earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.

For some young men, military service is a chore, merely a steppingstone to another career, but Colin Powell discovered that he enjoyed a life in uniform. He resolved to remain in the army and work his way through the ranks. Dispatched to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training, he excelled, finishing in the top ten of his class.

He also encountered racism and segregation while stationed in Georgia. “The Army was becoming more democratic,” he recalled, “but I was plunged back into the Old South every time I left the post. I could go into Woolworth’s [department store] in Columbus, Georgia, and buy anything I wanted, as long as I did not try to eat there. I could go into a department store, and they would take my money, as long as I did not try to use the men’s room. I could walk along the street, as long as I did not look at a white woman.”

Following Powell’s basic training, the army sent him to West Germany, assigned to the 48th Infantry. He was automatically promoted to first lieutenant at the end of his first year in uniform. He found this period enjoyable because Germany was not racially segregated. Powell called it “a breath of freedom” because black soldiers “could go where they wanted, eat what they wanted, and date whom they wanted, just like other people.” Throughout his long military career, he never forgot the joys he experienced as a young lieutenant in Germany. “You can serve thirty-five years in the Army and rise to the top, yet your first assignment always stands out as the most unforgettable, the one against which all future posts are measured,” he later wrote. He was correct. He even met Elvis Presley, who was serving in the army and stationed in West Germany, before returning to the states.

After completing a two-year stint in Germany, Powell moved on to Fort Devens, about 30 miles west of Boston, Massachusetts. Assigned to the 1st Battle Group, 4th Infantry, 2d Infantry Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Stillwell Jr., son of a legendary general officer, Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, Powell became a liaison officer. The title sounded impressive, but he essentially was the “gofer” for an officer in the battalion, Major Ralph D. Ellison. Powell stayed at Fort Devens from 1960 until 1962.

On August 25, 1962, Powell married Alma Johnson. The couple had three children: a son, Michael, and two daughters, Linda, and Annemarie. Michael Powell served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 until 2005, and Linda became an actress.

Also in August 1962, Powell received orders for an assignment in Vietnam. At the time, he and most Americans knew little about the tiny country in Southeast Asia. It seemed to be an insignificant spot on a world map thousands of miles away. Fortunately for Powell, in the years before American ground troops decamped in-country, only elite troops were dispatched to this faraway nation. “I became the envy of my fellow career officers, since those picked to go as advisers to South Vietnam were regarded as comers, walk-on-water types being groomed for bright future,” he later recalled.

Working as a South Vietnamese Army adviser was Powell’s first experience in the field. In his memoir, he recalled his experiences on patrol, especially a memorable incident when he was wounded. The battalion was marching along a trail. “Suddenly my right leg went out from under me and I felt a sharp sting,” Powell remembered. “I yanked my foot out of a small hole about a foot deep. I had stepped into a Punjab trap, and the spike had pierced through my boot and into my foot.” Initially feeling more embarrassed than injured, Powell limped along the trail. After 20 minutes, the pain became excruciating. When a medic examined Powell’s foot later, he immediately called for a helicopter to evacuate the young soldier. Dung spread on the Punjab stick had infected the wound in his foot. It was not life-threatening, but the injury changed the trajectory of Powell’s career. “I recovered quickly,” he said, “but my days as a field adviser were over.”

He spent most of the 1960s stateside before returning to Vietnam in 1968 as assistant chief of staff of operations for the 23rd Americal Infantry Division, 3d Battalion, 1st Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade. Much had changed between Powell’s first tour of duty in Vietnam and his second. When he departed in 1962, American personnel were still considered advisers, and the armed forces did not have an overwhelming presence. By 1968, American ground forces had been fighting for three long years. During that time, support for the war had declined precipitously on the American home front. What ostensibly started as a noble war against Communist aggression with the backdrop of the Cold War had devolved into an intractable slog through the messy internal divisions of a civil war between north and south. North Vietnam was controlled by Communist forces, but the Vietcong saw themselves as fighting a war for liberation. If Communism was the mechanism for achieving this goal, so be it. South Vietnam appeared to be allied with the West and its insistence on democratic reforms, but the inept, corrupt leadership did little to highlight the virtues of a free society. No one had clean hands.

Powell saw what had happened to unit cohesion and army morale between his first and second tours of duty. “These were good men, the same kind of young Americans who had fought, bled, and died winning victory after victory throughout our country’s history,” he later wrote. “They were no less brave or skilled, but by this time in the war, they lacked inspiration and a sense of purpose.” This assessment was understated. The Vietnam War had become an exercise in class division. Affluent young men found ways to avoid military service while less well-to-do teens and young adults became cannon fodder. With anti-war demonstrations in the United States, a stalemate on the battlefields and rice paddies of Vietnam, and a lack of a winning strategy, the entire war increasingly appeared to be a debacle, an enormous waste of blood and treasure.

As usual, Powell remained a good soldier. Despite innumerable obstacles, he set out to do his best. His best turned out to be more than sufficient, especially when he was injured in a helicopter crash on November 16, 1968. Powell was a passenger in a helicopter that was landing in the jungle when a rotor inadvertently struck a tree at the height of a three-story building. “One minute we were flying and the next we were dead weight, as the main rotor blades went instantly from 324 rpm [rotations per minute] to zero,” Powell recalled. “The helo dropped like an elevator with a snapped cable.”

Powell’s quick-thinking saved several men onboard the helicopter, including Major General Charles M. Gettys, whom Powell dragged from the burning wreckage of the aircraft. For his valor that day, Powell earned the Soldiers’ Medal, an award presented to any soldier who “distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving conflict with an enemy.” Aside from the minor lacerations and bruises to be expected with any trauma, Powell broke his ankle in the crash.

His most notable, and heartbreaking, assignment during his second tour of Vietnam occurred in 1969. In mid-March of that year, the inspector general’s staff of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) visited Powell to ask for aid in investigating an incident that had happened a year earlier. On March 16, 1968, the 11th Brigade entered a Vietnamese village, Son My, near the South China Sea. A platoon commanded by Lieutenant William Calley gathered the villagers together and fired their guns indiscriminately at the group of men, women, and children. The soldiers killed 347 defenseless people. This incident became known as the My Lai Massacre, one of the worst atrocities inflicted by American soldiers on noncombatants in the entire war.

The army attempted to hush up the killings, but the matter came to light in 1969 after a soldier wrote letters to multiple parties outlining the episode. Calley was eventually court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison for murder. Fearing that the prosecution undercut his administration’s war policy, President Richard M. Nixon called for Calley’s house arrest in lieu of confinement in prison. Later, Calley’s sentence was reduced on appeal. His case became a cause célèbre, with anti-war activists railing against baby killers in Vietnam and defenders of the war effort arguing that the episode was unfortunate, but a sad reality of war.

As part of his investigation into the My Lai Massacre, Colin Powell failed to uncover evidence of widespread or unnecessary killings. In Powell’s estimation, the relationship between American soldiers at the Vietnamese people was excellent, a far cry from the slaughter portrayed at My Lai. In subsequent years, Powell’s detractors argued that he was part of the army’s scheme to whitewash the episode. For his part, Powell acknowledged that My Lai was deplorable, but he did not believe that he had been involved in a deliberate coverup of grisly facts.

He returned to the states in 1971. The military encouraged career officers to pursue advanced degrees, and Powell took advantage of the policy to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from George Washington University. He was a decade older than many of his fellow students, and he was rusty when it came to academic studies. Nonetheless, Powell excelled in the classroom. He earned his MBA and went on to serve as a White House Fellow in 1972 and 1973.

As Powell explained in his memoir, My American Journey, the “White House Fellows program had been the brainchild of John W. Gardner, while he was serving as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Gardner’s idea was to expose young comers, particularly from the private sector, to the federal government at the highest level. The goal was to give future American leaders a better appreciation of how public policy was shaped and how their government operated.” Judging by the success of its alumni, the White House Fellows program was an unqualified success. Among its participants, corporate leaders, leaders in law and medicine, and noteworthy academics could point to their time as White House Fellows as formative experiences.

During his Washington posting, Powell encountered Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover sometime in the 1970s. He recalled watching the legendary curmudgeon speak at the General Services Administration during a swearing-in ceremony for employees. “The admiral said only a few words, but I have never forgotten his message,” Powell wrote in his memoirs. “Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.” Although Rickover was renowned as a harsh taskmaster with a prickly personality, his insight into leadership was memorable. “Truth from the mouths of curmudgeons is truth all the same,” Powell wryly observed.

After a short stint in Korea, Powell attended the Naval War College at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. He arrived in September 1974, not long after Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency over the Watergate scandal and was succeeded by Gerald R. Ford. The Vietnam War had ended before Watergate engulfed Nixon’s presidency, and army officers were still mulling over the reasons for the loss. The War College was designed as a “graduate school for war,” in Powell’s words. He and his fellow students were encouraged to ponder the great questions of military thinking and strategy. For the first time in his career, Colin Powell began thinking systematically about the link between history, politics, and military objectives.

Following graduation from the war college, Powell continued his ascent through the military ranks. From 1976 until 1977, he commanded the 2nd Brigade of the storied 101st Airborne Division. He moved on to become an assistant to deputy secretaries of defense Charles Duncan and W. Graham Claytor Jr. The assignments came on the heels of his promotion to brigadier general on June 1, 1979. As Powell noted, this was a major achievement. “Promotion from colonel to lieutenant colonel is a step up. From colonel to brigadier general is a giant leap. I did not take this promotion coolly. I acted more like a kid on Christmas morning.”

Powell’s service as an aid to Graham Claytor, a former secretary of the navy who was serving as deputy secretary of defense, was one of several high-profile positions that he held during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Powell observed the work of a high-ranking defense department official closely, and his observations were valuable for his later career.

Colin Powell developed a reputation as a soldier who could get things done. Frank Carlucci was Claytor’s successor when the Reagan administration arrived in January 1981. He asked General Powell to stay on as his senior military assistant. Later, Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh Jr. wooed Powell to resign from the army to become undersecretary of the army, a civilian position. Powell declined.

Although Powell was becoming adept at playing bureaucratic politics, he longed to “go back to doing what brigadier generals are supposed to do.” He lobbied for a field command. Finally, the general earned an assignment as assistant division commander for operations and training, 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fort Carson, Colorado, serving under Major General John W. Hudachek. Powell arrived at Fort Carson in 1981. He immediately found Hudacek’s leadership style off-putting. The general was “a tough overseer. The job got done, but by coercion, not motivation. Staff conferences turned into harangues. Inspections became inquisitions. The endless negative pressure exhausted the unit commanders and staff.” For Colin Powell, it was a crucial lesson in poor leadership. “The 4th Mech was a capable ship, but not a happy ship."

Powell moved on to Fort Leavenworth as he continued working his way through the military ranks. He desired a division command, but Washington called again. After 11 months at Leavenworth, Powell was dispatched to serve as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s senior military assistant. Powell had mixed feelings about the assignment. Like many career military officers, he preferred field command. At the same time, he could influence public policy to a greater extent in Washington, D.C.

Powell worked with Weinberger on several high-profile activities in the Reagan administration. He assisted Secretary Weinberger in responding to the 1983 Grenada invasion, the 1986 airstrike in Libya, and the notorious Iran-Contra affair. In the latter episode, Powell assured Weinberger in November 1985 that transferring Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Iran or Israel without notifying Congress was illegal. Despite this assessment, the administration continued to trade arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra episode.

The Tower Commission, a congressional committee that investigated the Iran-Contra affair, criticized both Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger “for not being aggressive enough” in opposing the scheme. Powell vehemently rejected this conclusion. “This was an unfair rap,” he later wrote. “I vividly remember sitting in Weinberger’s office and hearing him rail against the idiocy of the arms deal.” Powell had recognized the risks associated with circumventing Congress. “I had helped him [Weinberger] try to limit the Defense Department’s role to minimum compliance with NSC [National Security Council] requests and instructions. And I knew that Weinberger, as well as the rest of us at Defense, had no knowledge of the most illegal aspects of the affair, the diversion of Iranian arms sales profits to the contras.”

Powell emerged from the scandal with his reputation intact, but it was a close thing. Independent counsel Lawrence F. Walsh later noted that during his testimony before Congress, General Powell “had given incomplete answers” about notes that Weinberger had withheld. Indeed, Powell and others had concealed the notes, which the independent counsel concluded “seemed corrupt enough to meet the new, poorly defined test of obstruction.” Walsh indicted Weinberger on five felony charges, including one count obstruction of Congress for concealing the notes. President George H. W. Bush pardoned Weinberger in 1992. Powell was not indicted.

Anxious to be away from the machinations of Washington insiders, Powell accepted an assignment commanding V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany. He stayed in that position for just over five months before he returned to the states to serve as deputy national security adviser under Frank Carlucci. By 1987, Carlucci had left, and Powell was elevated to serve as President Reagan’s national security adviser. Powell remained in the army with the rank of lieutenant general.

He had risen higher in his professional career than he had thought possible. “I was no longer someone’s aide or number two,” he marveled. “I had become a ‘principal,’ with cabinet-level status, if not the rank.” He was also the first African American to hold the position.

Recognizing that an accomplished leader required a first-rate staff, he developed what he called “Powell’s Rules for Picking People. What I looked for was intelligence and judgment, and most critically, a capacity to see around corners. I also valued loyalty, integrity, a high energy level, a certain passion, a balanced ego, and the drive to get things done.”

Powell served President Reagan from November 1987 until the end of the administration in January 1989. During those months, Powell met numerous times with the president, and had time to assess Reagan’s leadership qualities. He confirmed the widely reported observation that Ronald Reagan was not a man who immersed himself in detail or mastered the intricacies of the public policy process. Reagan held fast to a core set of beliefs and left it to his deputies to work on the practicalities of policy positions and the problems of policy implementation. Reagan’s lack of attention to detail did not serve him well in the Iran-Contra affair, but the president focused on the larger tasks of leadership. He set the tone of his administration and inspired the people who worked for him with his communications skills as well as his ability to charm his adversaries.

Following the inauguration of Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, Powell left the National Security Council and earned a promotion to four-star general. He briefly served as the commander in chief, Forces Command (FORSCOM), headquartered at Fort McPherson, Georgia. The position required General Powell to oversee all active United States Army regulars, Army Reserve, and National Guard units in the United States. It was a high-profile position, and it highlighted Powell’s strengths as a leader.

He was on the short list of military personnel who could provide first-rate advice to an American president. Accordingly, on October 1, 1989, President Bush selected Powell to serve as the twelfth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). It was the pinnacle of Powell’s military career. At age 52, he was the youngest JCS chairman as well as the first African American to serve in the position. He served until September 30, 1993.

During his tenure, Powell was involved in addressing more than two dozen international crises, from the 1989 invasion of Panama, where the United States sought to remove General Manuel Noriega from power, to Operation Desert Storm, part of the 1991 Iraq War. Through it all, Powell became well known for his calm demeanor and steady presence, his grace under pressure. Most general officers do not become household names, but Colin Powell emerged as a star in the George H. W. Bush administration.

He was also known for a concept called the “Powell Doctrine,” which dictated that any nation that deliberately goes to war should bring overwhelming force to the battlefield. This was the hallmark of the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf. The United States attacked Saddam Hussein’s forces with so many resources that the conflict ended within a few days with minimal casualties. It was exactly the right strategy for the post-Vietnam War era. Americans were reluctant to place ground troops in harm’s way with no clear objective, no end game in sight, and employing only half measures. Powell admitted that “there was a lot of talk about Powell the ‘reluctant warrior.’ Guilty. War is a deadly game; and I do not believe in spending the lives of Americans lightly.” The Powell Doctrine would ensure that the United States was doing everything possible to minimize casualties and maximize results.

Colin Powell became a household name for many Americans owing to his role in prosecuting the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The war began approximately five months after Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, invaded a neighboring country, Kuwait, on August 2, 1990. Iraq established a puppet government, the so-called Republic of Kuwait, and annexed territory from Kuwait. Historians and political scientists continue to debate Hussein’s goals for invading Kuwait. Perhaps he wanted to obviate billions of dollars of debt that Iraq owed to Kuwait. Perhaps he wanted to seize Kuwait’s oil. Perhaps he wanted to divert attention from his own internal problems of governance by committing Iraqi troops to a battle on foreign soil. Perhaps his desire for territorial gains for what he believed to be minimal costs drove him to make a hasty decision.

Whatever compelled Hussein to act, he soon learned that he had made a major mistake. The international community was united in its condemnation of Iraq’s actions. In the United Nations, Resolution 660 condemned Iraq. In Resolution 661, the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iraq. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President George H. W. Bush deployed troops to Saudi Arabia as part of a coalition of forces assembled to persuade Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. In the United States, this became known as Operation Desert Shield.

On November 29, 1990, UN Security Council Resolution 678 offered Hussein one final opportunity to withdraw from Kuwait. He was warned that he must depart no later than January 17, 1991, or face severe consequences. The coalition forces would employ “all necessary means” to dislodge his forces.

After Hussein failed to observe the deadline, coalition forces launched a furious aerial bombardment campaign on January 17, 1991. Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. It lasted for five weeks. On February 24, coalition ground forces sprang into action. A hundred hours later, the forces emerged victorious. A ceasefire accompanied Iraq’s surrender. Although detractors later argued that the coalition should have continued into Iraq to ensure that Hussein was toppled from power, President Bush argued that the operation’s goals had been achieved. The action was never aimed at triggering regime change despite Saddam Hussein’s numerous transgressions.

Most Americans viewed the Gulf War was as an unqualified success. For a generation that came of age in the aftermath of the humiliating Vietnam War, a short, limited engagement with few American casualties that resulted in a sensational, unequivocal victory on the battlefield was a welcomed development. The Gulf War was also the first war to feature live news broadcasts from the battlefield. Wall-to-wall coverage introduced American viewers to a colorful cast of characters, notably General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commanding general of the coalition forces, and JCS Chairman Colin Powell.

Powell was frequently on television discussing the progress of the war. His soft-spoken yet confident demeanor, commanding stage presence, and the clear success of the war brought him instant fame as a media celebrity. He was unaccustomed to this level of media attention, and it was not altogether welcome, but the general’s obvious reluctance to become a celebrity merely enhanced his appeal. Pundits began to speak of him as a possible cabinet member, vice presidential candidate, or even a presidential aspirant.

“By the time [Vice President] Cheney, Norm [Schwarzkopf], and I went on television, we understood the dynamics,” Powell later wrote. “We were talking not only to the press assembled in front of us; we were talking to four other audiences—the American people, foreign nations, the enemy, and our troops.” Reflecting on the jubilant celebrations following the war, Powell believed that they were “no doubt out of proportion to the achievement. We had not fought another World War II.” Yet he was pleased to see that the loss of American prestige following Vietnam had been reversed somewhat, and “the American people fell in love again with their armed forces.”

Powell worked well with Defense Secretary Cheney, and it seemed as though their partnership would continue into a second term for President George H. W. Bush. Alas, the warm afterglow of military success was short-lived. In early 1991, the president’s public approval ratings were sky high. It was difficult to imagine that he would fail to win reelection in 1992. Yet the period between February 1991 and November 1992 was an eternity in American electoral politics. A worsening economy and the desire for new, generational change led to Bush’s loss. A new man, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, captured the presidency in November 1992. He was inaugurated on January 20, 1993.

With a new presidential administration came a new cabinet. Cheney’s successor, former U.S. Congressman Les Aspin of Wisconsin, was a mercurial figure. He and General Powell repeatedly clashed. “Les Aspin and I got along well personally,” the general insisted in a remark that was a bit disingenuous. Powell certainly believed that Aspin was an intelligent, knowledgeable politician, but his style did not fit well with the Pentagon, nor with the JCS chairman.

“Aspin had a management style that was the complete opposite of Cheney’s,” Powell explained in his memoirs. “He was as disjointed as Cheney was well organized. We never knew what time Les was coming to work in the morning. Staff meetings were sporadic. When meetings were held, they turned into marathon gabfests, while attendees for subsequent meetings stacked up in the hallways.” In short, Aspin’s style mirrored the style that his boss, President Bill Clinton, employed.

After he was confirmed as defense secretary, Aspin ordered a “Bottom-Up Review” of the military, an operation that many uniformed officers found off-putting. Wearing a rumpled suit, perpetually late and seemingly disengaged, Secretary Aspin did not command respect at the Pentagon. Watching as the new secretary sought to reform the Pentagon, General Powell decided that the time had come to retire.

He might have stayed on, but he was ready for a change. “The long adventure that had filled thirty-five of my fifty-six years was approaching its end,” Powell wrote. He could look back on a stellar career, but he was under no illusions. He was not an indispensable man. In Powell’s view, “though the Clinton national security team was now working reasonably well, I was sure my departure would not be mourned.” He formally retired on September 30, 1993.

General Douglas MacArthur famously observed that old soldiers fade away, but Powell was an exception to the rule. His popularity only increased in his retirement. Political figures on both sides of the aisle embraced his practical, moderate approach to national security issues. He was frequently spoken of as a potential vice presidential or presidential candidate. Declaring himself a Republican, Powell campaigned on behalf of various candidates, but he declined to stand for election in either the 1996 or 2000 presidential races.

He remained actively engaged in civic affairs, helping to found America’s Promise Alliance, a non-profit organization based on the idea that children require “Five Promises” to thrive, namely caring adults, safe spaces, a healthy start, effective education, and the opportunity to serve. In addition, he created the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service. The organization's paramount objective was to “prepare new generations of publicly engaged leaders from populations previously underrepresented in public service and policy circles, to build a strong culture of civic engagement at City College [Powell’s alma mater], and to mobilize campus resources to meet pressing community needs and serve the public good.”

Powell did not anticipate serving in another formal role in government, but that changed after Texas Governor George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000. Cognizant of his lack of national security experience, President-Elect Bush was anxious to surround himself with public figures well known for their gravitas. Powell possessed that quality in abundance. Moreover, the former JCS chairman had served with Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, as well as Dick Cheney, who was the vice president-elect in the incoming administration. Powell would be an excellent secretary of state, in Bush’s view. He asked the former general officer to serve, and Powell agreed to do so.

Unanimously confirmed by a voice vote in the United States Senate, Powell became secretary of state on January 20, 2001, Bush’s first day in office. As he had been so often during his career, the former JCS chairman was the first Black American in the post. He understood the unique burdens that this trailblazing status placed on his shoulders. In this new position, he was the president’s principal foreign policy adviser. Unlike some secretaries of state, who focus on managing the State Department and meeting periodically with the president as needed, Powell considered the president his chief client. Therefore, Powell traveled much less than his predecessors did, but he enjoyed a direct line to President Bush. The two men talked frequently.

The administration’s first major foreign policy test occurred on September 11, 2001. Secretary Powell was attending a meeting of the Organization of American States in Lima, Peru, when he learned of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States. Almost 3,000 people perished in coordinated attacks involving hijacked airplanes in New York City, Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania. Powell understood that the world, and American policy, had changed forever. He became a key manager of the Bush administration’s eventual war on terror. His numerous contacts with world leaders became a crucial feature in responding to the attacks as Powell became adept at rallying international support for the administration’s antiterrorism policies.

Powell’s most controversial actions as secretary of state came in the lead up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. On February 5 of that year, Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The question was whether the United States and its partners in an international coalition should invade Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s suspected cache of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Although many American national security analysts were skeptical of the existence of WMDs, Powell made a persuasive case for their existence. Such was his gravitas and respect on the international stage that Secretary Powell’s 75-minute UNSC presentation did much to assuage the skeptics’ concerns even though the facts that he presented that day were subsequently found to be inaccurate.

As Powell constructed his narrative, “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” He presented data that he claimed were corroborated by Iraqi defectors. Powell insisted that his conclusions were not mere assertions, but backed up by clear, unequivocal facts. The forceful, passionate presentation by a man of unimpeachable convictions was impressive to behold. As historian Jean Edward Smith noted, “Powell’s presence was imposing, he appeared sincere, and most Americans were convinced by his presentation. A Newsweek poll taken just after the speech found that half of all Americans polled were ready to go to war, versus only a third the month before.”

Having made its case to the world, the Bush administration launched its invasion with an air campaign on March 19, 2003. Ground forces followed the next day. Twenty-six days of combat with coalition forces from the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland led to a relatively easy victory. Coalition forces captured Baghdad, the capital city, on April 9, 2003. On May 1, 2003, President Bush declared the end of combat actions with a famous “mission accomplished” speech. A coalition government created the first of several successive transition governments in Iraq.

Although the Bush administration later argued that the war involved numerous national and international security issues, WMDs were the primary focus in 2003. Unfortunately for Bush and his team, a United Nations inspection team found no evidence that WMDs had ever existed in Iraq. Some Bush apologists also sought to establish a link between Hussein and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but the evidence did not support this theory. By all accounts, the Iraqi leader was a brutal dictator with a long history of terrorizing his own citizens as well as citizens from neighboring countries, but he was not the mastermind behind WMD development or terrorism on American soil despite the Bush administration’s attempts to establish a connection.

Bush had been warned that if his administration invaded Iraq, it would, in effect, “own” the result. As expected, after Saddam Hussein was toppled, a leadership vacuum existed. Competing factions vied for supremacy, with no one seemingly willing or able to ensure stability. The United States and its allies had created a chaotic situation, and the U.S. could not depart even after Bush declared that the mission was accomplished. If coalition forces failed to assist a new government in its efforts to govern Iraq, the failed state could become yet another breeding ground for anti-American, anti-Western terrorists. Owing to these thorny issues, American troops remained stationed in Iraq until 2011. During that decade, soldiers were attacked repeatedly or became victims of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted along roadways or in locations frequented by coalition personnel.

The war had been popular with most Americans early in 2003. A poll in January of that year found that 64 percent of respondents approved of military action, although a similar percentage wanted the president to seek a diplomatic solution before sending troops into harm’s way. As the U.S. commitment dragged on, public support waned.

Domestic politics aside, the war had never been popular with many of America’s allies. Leaders in France, Germany, and New Zealand, normally supportive of U.S. national security initiatives, argued that the invasion was unjustified. Iraq did not contain WMDs and the country’s chemical weapons stockpile from the 1991 Gulf War had been disposed of or dismantled. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared the invasion an illegal breach of the UN charter as well as a violation of international law.

Colin Powell had to face the fact that he had been instrumental in rallying what international support the administration enjoyed owing to his speech arguing in favor of the invasion. He had lent his name and prestige to the invasion, and it had provided cover for the administration to send troops into combat on a dubious mission. Behind the scenes, State Department analysts had debated the facts even as Secretary Powell assured the UNSC and the world that WMDs existed, and that Hussein’s regime represented a clear and present danger to the world order. Numerous passages in Powell’s speech were known to be erroneous, or at least based on a single, faulty source. Recognizing the shaky intelligence data in the speech, Vice President Dick Cheney joked before Powell’s UNSC presentation that “You’ve got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.”

Powell understood that he had taken one for the team. In an interview with the journalist Barbara Walters in September 2005, after he had retired, he acknowledged that his performance before the Security Council that day was a “blot” on his otherwise distinguished record of public service. The secretary wistfully noted that “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Fortunately, Powell’s tenure as secretary of state included accomplishments aside from the blot on his record. On April 1, 2001, shortly after Powell became secretary of state, the United States became embroiled in a conflict with China. A U.S. Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese J-8II interceptor jet collided in the air over Hainan Island, Chinese territory. With his calm demeanor and patient approach to diplomacy, Powell quietly resolved the crisis. Afterward, he observed that relations between the United States and China were the best they had been in decades.

Moreover, Powell understood the need to focus U.S. attention on Africa. For decades, the “dark continent” had received scant attention from U.S. policymakers unless it was necessary to check Soviet expansion during the Cold War. Consequently, Africa was only valuable to the United States as territory necessary to oppose a long-time enemy. With the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War, Africa seemed irrelevant to some policymakers. Certainly, the nation’s reluctance to intervene to stop the indiscriminate slaughter in Rwanda in 1994—coming on the heels of American soldiers’ deaths in Somalia the year before—suggested that African affairs did not rank highly on America’s list of foreign policy crises. Powell wanted to change that policy.

He believed that visiting countries to see conditions on the ground helped him better understand the needs of those nations. In addition, his visits called attention to the problems in the areas. He traveled throughout Africa and alerted American officials to the conditions he encountered. In 2004, Secretary Powell testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee about violence that had erupted in the African nation of Darfur. It was a country that few Americans could locate on a map. Powell called the slaughter “genocide,” the first time that an American official had used the term. With such attention focused on Darfur, the United States was galvanized to take proactive steps to halt the bloodshed.

Secretary Powell also realized the need to engage with the country of Sudan, which was engulfed in a vicious civil war. Under his watch, the U.S. State Department established an office in Sudan to allow Americans on the ground to intervene to prevent violence, when necessary. Always willing to be a hands-on manager, Powell personally helped to hammer out the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, also known as the Naivasha Agreement, drafted in Kenya in 2005 to end the Sudanese fighting.

The human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) crisis was more than 20 years old when Powell became secretary of state. It had spread across the globe and was especially prevalent in impoverished countries with poor sanitation practices, primitive medical facilities, and large populations of people of color. The stigma attached to AIDS victims and the high cost of medicines made treatment difficult. Alarmed at the scope of the problem, Secretary Powell focused attention on the issue and directed U.S. humanitarian assistance to nations ravaged by the disease. He also emphasized economic development as an effective means of containing the spread of the disease. If countries suffering from high rates of HIV/AIDS could improve their living conditions, they could ensure improved sanitary conditions that would translate into improvements in the health of all citizens. Beginning in 2003, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief distributed tens of billions of dollars in aid to combat HIV/AIDS across the globe.

Powell’s low key, respectful management style and good faith efforts to engage numerous countries around the world improved morale at the State Department. Foreign service professionals had grown accustomed to political appointees coming into the upper echelon of the department, criticizing the work of the men and women laboring in the diplomatic corps, instituting a series of supposedly much-needed reforms, and departing hastily at the end of the presidential administration, if not sooner. The revolving door ensured that the department was whipsawed. Just as department professionals became acclimated to one secretary’s management style, he or she was gone, only to be replaced by someone else who viewed the department’s priorities differently.

Powell understood the need for clear direction as well as continuity of purpose. Drawing on his military background and his familiarity with leadership principles, Powell elevated career diplomats into his inner circle and relied heavily on their judgment. He was quick to reward stellar work, especially by professional diplomats serving in far-flung, often dangerous posts.

Powell understood the need for collaborative efforts within the State Department and between the State Department and other agencies and organizations. To that end, he supported the work of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent foreign service agency created in 2004 to combat global poverty. Millennium provides grants to countries in desperate need of funds for economic development. The secretaries of state and treasury as well as the U.S. trade representative, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the MCC chief executive officer, and private sector members appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate guide the corporation’s efforts. Powell proved to be an adept MCC leader during his tenure at the State Department.

For all of Powell’s accomplishments, President Bush had soured on his secretary of state by 2004. The secretary remained popular, and his popularity and gravitas allowed him to operate, in essence, as an independent source of authority. Perhaps that was the problem. Powell’s relative autonomy suggested that he was not a team player. Fairly or unfairly, he acquired a reputation as aloof from other administration officials, a rebel who was increasingly unwilling to tow the party line. Given his bruised ego following the 2003 UNSC presentation, Powell’s reluctance to follow the accepted administration perspective was understandable, but it did not sit well inside the White House.

Powell had initially pledged to depart from the administration after Bush’s reelection, but he seemed to entertain second thoughts. Bush, however, was ready for a change. Perhaps most importantly, he wished to elevate Condoleeza Rice. She had served as his national security adviser, and she was close to the president. He had promised her the State Department post after Powell departed.

When Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, informed Powell of the impending change, the secretary was taken aback. “I thought we were going to talk about it,” Powell exclaimed. Card explained that Bush was reorganizing the cabinet for the second term, and he wanted to announce multiple resignations at the same time. The message was clear: Bush wanted Powell’s resignation, and he would have it. A cabinet secretary serves at the pleasure of the president, and Powell, the career military man, understood this point all too well.

Always a good soldier, Powell typed out a letter of resignation. Although he was essentially being forced out, Powell acted as though he chose to leave. “As we have discussed in recent months, I believe that now the election is over the time has come for me to step down as Secretary of State and return to private life,” he wrote. With that, he left the administration with little fanfare. His last day in office was January 26, 2005.

Powell the private citizen traveled the world delivering motivational speeches. As a Black man who had risen farther than almost all his contemporaries, his life story was inspiring to millions, especially to young men of color. Powell was aware of his stature, and he sought to use his prestige to empower others to follow in his footsteps.

He also joined the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. A global public figure, Powell remained well connected with national and international leaders. In January 2006, he participated in a White House meeting with former secretaries of state and defense to discuss U.S. policy in the global fight against terrorism. Powell could be counted on to be a moderate voice. As the Bush administration came under increasing criticism for its stance on torture and its willingness to prosecute suspected terrorists in military tribunals, Powell fretted that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.”

As part of his effort to stay connected, Powell served on several boards of directors. He served on the board of directors for entrepreneur Steve Case’s health care company, Revolution Health, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he became a spokesman for National Mentoring Month to recruit volunteers to serve as mentors for at-risk young people.

Owing to his stature as a respected former general officer and cabinet member, Powell was frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate or cabinet official. Although he mulled over the possibility of a presidential run, he declined to enter the race several times, citing his distaste for electoral politics. His wife, Alma, also worried that a Black man seeking elective office might be subject to death threats or, worse, assassination plots. It was a valid concern.

By 2008, a new Black man was on the rise in American politics. After Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president that year, pundits speculated on whether the former secretary of state might join the cabinet again. He did not, although Powell served as an informal adviser to President Obama. Powell also became an honorary co-chair of Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The general also endorsed Obama for reelection in 2012.

Powell had been a proud Republican during the waning days of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, but he resisted his party’s shift toward the right. When Donald Trump emerged to campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Powell was incensed by the candidate’s boorish behavior, lack of serious policy initiatives, and obviously limited intellectual prowess. In announcing his support for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, Powell condemned Trump as a “national disgrace and an international pariah.”

After Trump won the election in one of greatest upsets in American political history, Powell watched the new administration’s actions with increasing horror. He did not approve of what he saw. Trump’s ad hoc decision-making, often at the expense of long-standing American allies, and his willingness to kowtow to brutal dictators such as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin sickened the former military man and adviser to President Reagan. The Gipper, as Reagan was sometimes called, would never have acquiesced to the thuggish behavior of a Russian autocrat. Everything about President Trump’s foreign policy, to say nothing of the man’s personal failings, disgusted the former general officer.

As the 2020 election approached, Powell again rejected the Republican Party of Donald Trump. “We have a Constitution. And we have to follow that Constitution. And the President has drifted away from it,” Powell explained in an interview. The result was that he “certainly cannot in any way support President Trump this year.” In fact, Powell was so alienated from the Republican Party that he delivered an address at the 2020 Democratic National Convention announcing his support for former Vice President Joe Biden.

The old general’s estrangement from Republican politics was complete after the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Like many Americans, Powell was unnerved by the violent assault on the symbol of American democracy. The general was infuriated that President Trump had incited the mob in a clumsy attempt to circumvent the results of the 2020 presidential election and remain in power. Trump had elevated his own political forces over the good of the nation, a crass, indefensible position, in Powell’s view. “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican. I’m not a fellow of anything right now,” the retired general explained. “I’m just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career. And right now, I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”

Even as he remained vitally interested in national and international affairs, Powell’s health deteriorated during the 2020s. While he was being treated for multiple myeloma, he contracted COVID-19. On October 18, 2021, Powell died at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center from complications from the COVID-19 vaccine. He was 84 years old.

“Jill and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity, General Colin Powell,” President Biden said in a public statement issued immediately following news of the general’s death. “Colin Powell was a good man. He will be remembered as one of our great Americans.” Three of the four living former presidents issued statements praising Powell’s long record of public service. “Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Colin Powell,” George W. Bush, Powell’s former boss, said in his public statement. “He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam.” Barack Obama called Powell “an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot.” Bill Clinton noted that Powell “lived the promise of America, and spent a lifetime working to help our country, especially our young people, live up to its own ideals and noblest aspirations at home and around the world.”

Predictably, former President Donald Trump chose to take the low road. Never a fan of Powell, who had endorsed Trump’s opponents in 2016 and 2020, Trump commented, “Wonderful to see Colin Powell, who made big mistakes on Iraq and famously, so-called weapons of mass destruction, be treated in death so beautifully by the Fake News Media. Hope that happens to me someday. He was a classic RINO [Republican in name only], if even that, always being the first to attack other Republicans. He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace!”

Powell’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral featured numerous dignitaries who arrived to pay their respects. President Biden was there with First Lady Jill Biden as well as Presidents Obama and his wife, Michelle, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and Hillary Clinton. (Bill Clinton was ill and unable to attend.) Powell was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

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