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Colin Powell
April 5, 1937 -
General and Diplomat


Colin Luther Powell is an American statesman and a retired four-star general in the United States Army. He was the 65th United States Secretary of State (2001–2005), serving under President George W. Bush. He was the first African American appointed to that position. During his military career, Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987–1989), as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Army Forces Command (1989) and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–1993), holding the latter position during the Gulf War. He was the first, and so far the only, African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, to Jamaican immigrant parents Maud Arial (née McKoy) and Luther Theophilus Powell. He also has Scottish and Irish ancestry. Powell was raised in the South Bronx and attended Morris High School, a former public school in the Bronx, from which he graduated in 1954. While at school, he worked at a local baby furniture store where he picked up Yiddish from the shopkeepers and some of the customers. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology from the City College of New York in 1958, attaining a C average, according to his 2006 graduation address at Marymount University. He later earned a Master of Business Administration degree from The George Washington University, after his second tour in Vietnam in 1971.

Military Career

Powell joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at City College and later described it as one of the happiest experiences of his life; discovering something he loved and could do well, he felt he had "found himself." Cadet Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, the ROTC fraternal organization and drill team begun by General John Pershing. Even after he had become a General, Powell kept on his desk a pen set he had won for a drill team competition. Graduating from City College, he received a commission as an Army second lieutenant. He was a professional soldier for 35 years, holding a variety of command and staff positions and rising to the rank of General.

Powell was a captain during the Vietnam War, serving as a South Vietnamese Army adviser from 1962 to 1963. While on patrol in a Viet Cong-held area, he was wounded by stepping on a punji stake.He returned to Vietnam as a major in 1968, serving in the Americal Division (23rd Infantry Division), then as assistant chief of staff of operations for the Americal Division. He was charged with investigating a detailed letter by Tom Glen (a soldier from the 11th Light Infantry Brigade), which backed up rumored allegations of the My Lai Massacre. Powell wrote: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Later, Powell's assessment would be described as whitewashing the news of the massacre, and questions would continue to remain undisclosed to the public. In May 2004 Powell said to Larry King, "I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored."

Powell served a White House fellowship, a highly selective and prestigious position, under President Richard Nixon from 1972 to 1973.

In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell named several officers he served under that inspired and mentored him. As a lieutenant colonel serving in South Korea, Powell was very close to General Henry "Gunfighter" Emerson. Powell said he regarded Emerson as one of the most caring officers he ever met. Emerson was reputedly eccentric; he insisted his troops train only at night and made them repeatedly watch the television film Brian's Song to promote racial harmony. Powell always professed, however, that what set Emerson apart, was his great love of his soldiers and concern for their welfare.

In the early 1980s, Powell served at Fort Carson, Colorado. After he left Fort Carson, Powell became senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, whom he assisted during the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1986 airstrike on Libya.

In 1986, he took over the command of V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany, from Robert Lewis "Sam" Wetzel. Following the Iran Contra scandal, Powell became Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor, serving from 1987 to 1989. In April 1989, Powell was promoted to General and briefly served as the Commander in Chief, Forces Command, headquartered at Fort McPherson, Georgia. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush selected him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

National Security Advisor

President Ronald Reagan and National Security Advisor Powell in 1988At the age of 49, Powell became Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor, serving from 1987 to 1989 while retaining his Army commission as a lieutenant general. After his tenure with the National Security Council, Powell was promoted to a full general under President George H.W. Bush and briefly served as Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of the Army's Forces Command (FORSCOM), overseeing all Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard units in the Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Official Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff portraitHis last military assignment, from October 1, 1989 to September 30, 1993, was as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. At age 52, he became the youngest officer, and first Afro-Caribbean American, to serve in this position. In 1989, he joined Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alexander Haig as the third general since World War II to reach four-star rank without ever being a divisional commander. During this time, he oversaw 28 crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 to remove General Manuel Noriega from power and Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During these events, Powell earned his nickname, "the reluctant warrior." He rarely advocated military intervention as the first solution to an international crisis, and instead usually prescribed diplomacy and containment.

In his autobiography, Powell said he is haunted by the nightmare of the Vietnam War and felt that the leadership was very ineffective. Powell served a tour in Vietnam as a military adviser, and was mildly injured when he stepped on a bamboo "punji stick." The large infection made it difficult for him to walk, and caused his foot to swell for a short time, shortening his first tour. It was also during his Vietnam service, his second tour, that Powell was decorated for bravery. He single-handedly rescued several men from a burning helicopter, one of them being Maj. Gen. Charles Gettys, the commander of the Americal Division.

General Colin Powell, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, waves from his motorcade during the Persian Gulf War Welcome Home Parade in New York City.Additionally, Powell has been critical of other instances of U.S. foreign policy in the past, such as its support for the 1973 Chilean coup d'état. From two separate interviews in 2003, Powell stated in one about the 1973 event "I can't justify or explain the actions and decisions that were made at that time. It was a different time. There was a great deal of concern about communism in this part of the world. Communism was a threat to the democracies in this part of the world. It was a threat to the United States." In another interview, however, he also simply stated "With respect to your earlier comment about Chile in the 1970s and what happened with Mr. Allende, it is not a part of American history that we're proud of."

As a military strategist, Powell has advocated an approach to military conflicts that maximizes the potential for success and minimizes casualties. A component of this approach is the use of overwhelming force, which he applied to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. His approach has been dubbed the "Powell Doctrine."

Potential Candidate

Powell's experience in military matters made him a very popular figure with both American political parties. Many Democrats admired his moderate stance on military matters, while many Republicans saw him as a great asset associated with the successes of past Republican administrations. Put forth as a potential Democratic Vice Presidential nominee in the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election or even potentially replacing Vice President Dan Quayle as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, Powell eventually declared himself a Republican and began to campaign for Republican candidates in 1995. He was touted as a possible opponent of Bill Clinton in the 1996 U.S. Presidential Election, possibly capitalizing on a split conservative vote in Iowa and even leading New Hampshire polls for the GOP nomination, but Powell declined, citing a lack of passion for politics. Powell defeated Clinton 50-38 in a hypothetical match-up proposed to voters in the exit polls conducted on Election Day. Despite not standing in the race, Powell won the New Hampshire Vice-Presidential primary on write-in votes.

In 1997 Powell founded America's Promise with the objective of helping children from all socioeconomic sectors. Powell often wears the organization's logo in the form of a red wagon pin on his lapel.

In the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election Powell campaigned for Senator John McCain and later Texas Governor George W. Bush after the latter secured the Republican nomination. Bush eventually won, and Powell was appointed Secretary of State.

Secretary of State

Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listen to President George W. Bush speak.As Secretary of State in the Bush administration, Powell was perceived as moderate. Powell was unanimously voted in by the United States Senate. Over the course of his tenure he traveled less than any other U.S. Secretary of State in 30 years.

On September 11, 2001, Powell was in Lima, Peru, meeting with President Alejandro Toledo and US Ambassador John Hamilton, and attending the special session of the OAS General Assembly that subsequently adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter. After the terrorist attacks, Powell's job became of critical importance in managing America's relationships with foreign countries in order to secure a stable coalition in the War on Terrorism.

Powell came under fire for his role in building the case for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In a press statement on February 24, 2001 he had said that sanctions against Iraq had prevented the development of any weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein. As was the case in the days leading up to the Persian Gulf War, Powell was initially opposed to a forcible overthrow of Hussein, preferring to continue a policy of containment. However, Powell eventually agreed to go along with the Bush administration's determination to remove Hussein. He had often clashed with others in the administration, who were reportedly planning an Iraq invasion even before the September 11 attacks, an insight supported by testimony by former terrorism czar Richard Clarke in front of the 9/11 Commission. The main concession Powell wanted before he would offer his full support for the Iraq War was the involvement of the international community in the invasion, as opposed to a unilateral approach. He was also successful in persuading Bush to take the case of Iraq to the United Nations, and in moderating other initiatives. Powell was placed at the forefront of this diplomatic campaign.

Computer-generated image of an alleged mobile production facility for biological weapons, presented by Powell at the UN Security Council. On May 27, 2003, US and UK experts examined the trailers and declared they had nothing to do with biological weapons.Powell's chief role was to garner international support for a multi-national coalition to mount the invasion. To this end, Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003 to argue in favor of military action. Citing numerous anonymous Iraqi defectors, Powell asserted that "there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more." Powell also stated that there was "no doubt in my mind" that Hussein was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons.

Most observers praised Powell's oratorical skills. However, Britain's Channel 4 News reported soon afterwards that a UK intelligence dossier that Powell had referred to as a "fine paper" during his presentation had been based on old material and plagiarized an essay by American graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi. A 2004 report by the Iraq Survey Group concluded that the evidence that Powell offered to support the allegation that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was inaccurate.

A Senate report on intelligence failures would later detail the intense debate that went on behind the scenes on what to include in Powell's speech. State Department analysts had found dozens of factual problems in drafts of the speech. Some of the claims were taken out, but others were left in, such as claims based on the yellowcake forgery. The administration came under fire for having acted on faulty intelligence. Reports have indicated that Powell himself was skeptical of the evidence presented to him. Powell later recounted how Vice President Dick Cheney had joked with him before he gave the speech, telling him, "You've got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points." Powell's longtime aide-de-camp, Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, later characterized Cheney's view of Powell's mission as to "go up there and sell it, and we'll have moved forward a peg or two. Fall on your damn sword and kill yourself, and I'll be happy, too."

In September 2005, Powell was asked about the speech during an interview with Barbara Walters and responded that it was a "blot" on his record. He went on to say, "It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It's painful now."

Wilkerson said that he participated in a hoax on the American people in preparing Powell's erroneous testimony before the United Nations Security Council.

Because Powell was seen as more moderate than most figures in the administration, he was spared many of the attacks that have been leveled at more controversial advocates of the invasion, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. At times, infighting among the Powell-led State Department, the Rumsfeld-led Defense Department, and Cheney's office had the effect of polarizing the administration on crucial issues, such as what actions to take regarding Iran and North Korea.

Secretary Powell with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.After Saddam Hussein had been deposed, Powell's new role was to once again establish a working international coalition, this time to assist in the rebuilding of post-war Iraq. On September 13, 2004, Powell testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, acknowledging that the sources who provided much of the information in his February 2003 UN presentation were "wrong" and that it was "unlikely" that any stockpiles of WMDs would be found. Claiming that he was unaware that some intelligence officials questioned the information prior to his presentation, Powell pushed for reform in the intelligence community, including the creation of a national intelligence director who would assure that "what one person knew, everyone else knew."

Colin Powell holding a model vial of anthrax while giving a presentation to the United Nations Security CouncilPowell announced his resignation as Secretary of State on November 15, 2004. According to the Washington Post, he had been asked to resign by the president's chief of staff, Andrew Card.Powell announced that he would stay on until the end of Bush's first term or until his replacement's confirmation by Congress. The following day, Bush nominated National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as Powell's successor. News of Powell's leaving the Administration spurred mixed reactions from politicians around the world — some upset at the loss of a statesman seen as a moderating factor within the Bush administration, but others hoping for Powell's successor to wield more influence within the cabinet.

Personal Life

Powell married Alma Johnson on August 25, 1962. Their son, Michael Powell, was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 2001 to 2005. As a hobby, Powell restores old Volvo and Saab cars.

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