Colin Powell was a distinguished and admired public figure for more than four decades of public life. From humble beginnings, the son of Jamaican immigrants was a trailblazer who became the nation’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state.
The soldier and diplomat died Oct. 18 at age 84 from complications of COVID-19. He is survived by his wife, Alma, 83, their three children Michael, Linda and Annemarie, and two grandchildren.
Powell leaves a legacy of numerous achievements. Here are just a few of them.
Youngest general officer
Powell, who grew up in New York’s Bronx borough, entered the military through the Army R.O.T.C. program at The City College of New York. While in the newly desegregated military, Powell came face-to-face with Jim Crow when training in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1957 as an R.O.T.C. student and in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Despite the racism around him, Powell rose quickly through the ranks to become a one-star in general in 1979 at age 42--the youngest general officer in the Army at that time.
National security pinnacle
Powell reached the pinnacle of the nation’s national security establishment when President Ronald Reagan tapped him to become his national security advisor, the first Black person to serve in that role. During his time on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, Powell was credited with restoring credibility following the Iran-contra scandal. His actions included helping to end NSC covert operations and creating transparency.
Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff
In 1989, as a four-star general Powell became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. He leapfrogged over 14 more senior officers to earn the prestigious position. As the top military leader, Powell was the architect behind the Persian Gulf war in 1991. He also inspired the Powell Doctrine, which called for applying military might only with overwhelming and decisive troop strength, a clear objective and popular support.
A ‘Blot’ on his record
One of the most painful moments in Powell’s professional life came when, as secretary of state, he presented President George W. Bush’s case for an Iraqi invasion to the United Nations. On February 5, 2003, he delivered a now infamous 76-minute speech to the world body that included unknowingly erroneous intelligence information. Powell later said it tarnished his reputation. “It’s a blot. I'm the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record.” In the administration, he disagreed with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on foreign policy issues.
Highly decorated civilian
In a statement on Powell’s passing, the George W. Bush Presidential Center noted, “He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice. In fact, an archived White House bio of Powell listed his civilian awards: two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President’s Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal, and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal.