Colin Powell, an accomplished and esteemed four-star general who became the first African-American secretary of State, died Monday as a result of complications from Covid-19, according to his family. He was 84.
Powell was fully vaccinated against Covid-19, his family said in a statement posted to Facebook. With his death, the former soldier and statesman becomes perhaps the most high-profile American public figure to succumb to a so-called “breakthrough” infection of the novel coronavirus.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” the Powell family said in its statement. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
Powell was also the nation’s first African-American national security adviser and the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the youngest person to serve in the latter post. Described frequently as the most popular American general since Dwight Eisenhower, Powell was often mentioned as a possible candidate for president, but he never elected to run.
“Gen. Powell is an American hero, an American example and a great American story,” President-elect George W. Bush said in selecting him to lead the State Department in December 2000. “It’s a great day when a son of the South Bronx succeeds to the office first held by Thomas Jefferson.”
Bush also compared him to another diligent, straight-arrow military leader who became secretary of state: “I would say of General Powell what Harry Truman said of General [George] Marshall: He is a tower of strength and common sense.”
For better or worse, Powell’s years in the public eye were largely bracketed by wars with Iraq. The first war, in 1991, was a successful effort under President George H.W. Bush to liberate Kuwait from Iraq — America’s clearest military victory since the quagmire that was the Vietnam War.
The second, launched in 2003, was an effort under the younger Bush to prevent Saddam Hussein’s government from using nuclear weapons, a war that tarnished Powell and other American leaders when it became clear those weapons did not exist. “I am mostly mad at myself for not having smelled the problem,” Powell wrote in “It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership,” his 2012 book. “My instincts failed me.”
Colin Luther Powell was born April 5, 1937, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, the son of Jamaican immigrants Luther and Maud Powell. “I was a happy-go-lucky kid,” he said later of his childhood.
Jeffrey J. Matthews wrote in “Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot,” his 2019 book:
“Raised by immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood of New York’s South Bronx, Powell never excelled in academics or athletics, nor did he display the extroverted qualities so often associated with burgeoning young leaders.”
Powell graduated from Morris High School in 1954 and enrolled at the City College of New York. He found direction, purpose and camaraderie in the college’s ROTC program. He graduated with a commission as a second lieutenant, launching a military career that would take him to almost unimaginable heights for a soldier who did not attend a military academy.
“To the great relief of the faculty,” he wrote in “It Worked For Me,“ “I was passed off to the U.S. Army.”
In 1962 — the same year he married Alma Vivian Powell — he arrived in Vietnam, well before the growing conflict was on the radar of most Americans. His job was to train the leadership of South Vietnamese forces. Powell was wounded when he stepped on a punji stake.
During a second tour in 1968, he survived a helicopter crash and rescued the others in the chopper “with complete disregard for his own safety and while injured himself” (according to the commendation he later received). His second tour in Vietnam also refined his thinking about how American military power should be used.
“I had gone off to Vietnam in 1962, standing on a bedrock of principle and convictions,” he said later. “And I had watched the foundation eroded by euphemisms, lies and self-deception.”
Combined with insights derived from a careful study of the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, his Vietnam War experiences would fuel what would come to be called the Powell Doctrine, with its emphasis on restraint and the idea that every use of the U.S. military should have clear and achievable goals — and sufficient resources to guarantee success. Powell also saw it as important to have public support at home and allies around the world.
“We owe it to the men and women who go in harm’s way to make sure that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 1992.
In the military, Powell was praised by seemingly everyone he served with. He was, Matthews wrote in “Imperfect Patriot,” seen as both a strong leader and a perfect follower, a rare combination. Before asking those under his command to attempt something difficult, he would often do it himself, earning respect and loyalty.
“Colin is quintessentially a good soldier,” said Caspar Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary. “He does his duty and carries out orders.”
Powell was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, major general in 1983, lieutenant general in 1986 and four-star general in 1989. After a stint working under Weinberger and then as Reagan’s national security adviser, the first President Bush picked him in 1989 to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was confirmed unanimously for that post.
As the Cold War came to an unexpected end, the world was reordering itself in messy and sometimes violent ways. “Amid the international tumult,” Matthews wrote, “Powell emerged as America’s most admired and trusted leader.”
The Bush administration invaded Panama and toppled strongman Manuel Noriega, but no challenge was greater than the one presented by Iraq’s August 1990 conquest of Kuwait, its tiny neighbor. Dubious of going to war at first, Powell counseled that the U.S. needed to have enough strength to guarantee victory — and enough time to get those forces in place.
The U.S. assembled an international coalition to free Kuwait and launched an air war in January 1991. The subsequent ground war was lightning-fast, ending in 100 hours. Powell and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf were widely praised for the victory; for once, it seemed, a war had gone as planned.
A ticker-tape parade in June brought out more than 4 million people in Powell’s hometown. “It’s a great day to be back home in New York,” he exulted.
“The best part from my perspective,” he told the Military Times in 2017, “is the way in which the American people saw this operation. And they had been told that tens of thousands might be killed. They were worried about this volunteer army that had never been in this level of combat before. And they were absolutely joyful at the results. And they threw parades for our troops.”
Powell retired from the military in the fall of 1993. That year, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll put his favorability rating at 64 percent, compared with 6 percent unfavorable.
“Colin Powell is a special case,” Joe Klein wrote in Newsweek in 1994. “He stands, at 57, as the most respected figure in American public life. He is an African-American who transcends race; a public man who transcends politics.”
Buoyed by the sales of his autobiography, “My American Journey” — his book tour drew huge crowds — and the success of a mission to Haiti with former President Jimmy Carter and then-Sen. Sam Nunn that averted a war there, Powell was widely seen as the strongest challenger to President Bill Clinton in 1996.
But Powell opted not to run for president. On Nov. 8, 1995, he announced he was indeed a Republican — and then immediately bowed out.
“I never found inside of me the internal passion that you’ve got to have to run for elected office,” Powell told CNN in 2009, adding: “It just wasn’t me, and you’ve got to be true to yourself.”
In September 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole — on his way to a defeat at the hands of Clinton — told ABC’s Barbara Walters that Powell could have any job he wanted in his Cabinet. “I’d almost give him mine,“ he quipped.
At the end of Clinton’s second term, Powell returned to public service. Still wildly popular, he accepted George W. Bush’s offer to lead the State Department. Powell’s selection was seen as evidence that Bush wished to heal the nation’s wounds after the divisive 2000 presidential election. One day after Bush’s inauguration, Powell was confirmed unanimously.
“The old world map as we knew it, of a red side and blue side that competed for something called the Third World, is gone,” Powell said at the time of his selection. “And the new map is a mosaic, a mosaic of many different pieces and many different colors spreading around the world.”
That world changed with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration responded by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and then turned its sights toward Iraq, where Hussein remained in power a decade after the Gulf War. The problem was that the case for toppling him — which Bush and others were eager to do — was nowhere near as strong as the one that linked the Taliban to the 9/11 attacks.
Counting on his popularity, Bush tasked Powell with making the case against Iraq to the world.
“Inherently cautious, Powell sought to draw incontrovertible conclusions,” Matthews wrote.
In February 2003, Powell went to the United Nations to plead the Bush administration’s case. “Every statement I make today,” he said, “is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.”
Weeks later, U.S. forces invaded Iraq. As the war progressed, it became clear that Powell’s facts were nowhere near as solid as he had made them out to be. The invasion of Iraq yielded no weapons of mass destruction. A and B had not added up to C.
Of course, Powell’s career to that point had not been totally without blemish. He had played a peripheral role in the cover-up of the 1968 massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. During the Reagan years, he participated in the illegal sale of arms to Iran. If Weinberger had not been pardoned before his trial, Powell would have had to testify against his former boss about those sales. In 1992-93, an intervention in Somalia had gotten complicated and bloody.
But this time, Powell’s reputation took a hit.
“After leaving office,” Thomas Ricks wrote in “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” “Powell would spin his record, talking about how he had won victories within the Bush administration and with allies. Yet, sadly, he also would seem to recognize that his term as secretary of state is likely to be remembered for making the false case at the United Nations.”
After Bush was reelected in 2004, Powell stepped down. “It has always been my intention that I would serve one term,” he said. Still, amid tensions in the White House over foreign policy, there was little doubt that the decision was mutual.
Powell had influenced the president on some matters, such as combating HIV/AIDS worldwide, but he clashed with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others on North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other global hot spots. He had also found himself at odds with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about Iraq’s rocky transition to democracy.
“It was clear by 2004 that the team was not functioning as a team,” Powell said in 2011. “And we had different views, and not just views, not views that could be reconciled.”
Powell would subsequently be disparaged by Bush loyalists. Cheney, in particular, was critical of his comments on the war in Iraq.
The retired general remained much in demand as a speaker and expert on national security matters. Charitable causes sought his assistance, schools were named for him, and the City College of New York honored its famous graduate by launching the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
Powell also accumulated awards, including two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, the Liberty Medal, the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award and a Congressional Gold Medal. Sixteen times, he was listed as one of the Gallup Poll’s most admired men in the world.
Through it all, he never ran for office, though in 2016, three faithless electors in the Electoral College voted for him instead of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. “It was charming,” Powell said in 2020 discussing his surprise third-place finish.
In October 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama as he was weeks away from being elected the nation’s first African-American president. “I think he is a transformational figure,” Powell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Powell added: “I can’t deny that it will be a historic event when an African-American becomes president. And should that happen, all Americans should be proud — not just African-Americans.”