Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, who also was a four-star U.S. Army general and also the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has died of complications of COVID-19 Monday, CNN reports. He was 84.
The Bronx, N.Y., native rose in the ranks in the American military to shape foreign U.S. foreign policy over the course of the 80s and 90s, serving under several presidents including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as leading the effort behind Operation Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
In a post on his Facebook page, Powell’s family said that he was fully vaccinated against coronavirus. CNN reported that he had suffered from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that weakens the body’s ability to fight infections.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment. We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the family said in the statement.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was among the first Monday morning to express sorrow over the loss of his longtime friend and mentor.
A son of Jamaican immigrants, Colin Luther Powell was born April 5, 1937 and grew up in a working class South Bronx neighborhood. He attended the City College of New York, where he majored in geology. But his military career began when he joined the ROTC there and received an Army commission as a second lieutenant when he graduated in 1958.
Years later in Vietnam, he served two tours of duty, first in 1962 as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army, when he was wounded. He returned in 1968 as assistant chief of staff of operations for the 23rd Infantry Division. On that tour he survived a helicopter crash and is credited with rescuing three fellow soldiers. Upon returning from Vietnam, he earned his MBA from Georgetown University.
Powell, who became a four-star general, went on to become National Security Advisor under President Reagan while still serving as lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, while also sitting on the National Security Council. But his star continued to rise, resulting in President George H.W. Bush, selecting him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first African American to do so.
The Seat of Power
But Powell is best known for his roles in the decision making during the military operation in the Persial Gulf when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. forces invaded Kuwait in efforts to thwart the Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein. Bush and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to launch Operation Desert Storm, building a coalition including Great Britain, France, Italy, Syria and Italy to liberate Kuwait.
Looking back on that operation, Powell remembered the effort that had to be made in an interview with the military officers association website MOAA.org
“In those first days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, we had to understand what we might have to do. It’s been reported we had debates within the administration,” he said. “That’s not unreasonable. My position was: Mr. President, tell us what are you prepared to do, and we’ll show you how we’ll do it.”
However, Powell is also known for his roles in the decision to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He had been selected as U.S. Secretary of State by President George W. Bush after his win in the 2000 election, again the first African American to be chosen to serve in the position and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
After the attacks, the nation was in crisis with many in Congress demanding action in response. A sentiment grew within the Bush Administration to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Powell warned the president that creating a democratic nation would be difficult, but he went to the United Nations in 2003, making the case for a new invasion of Iraq to search for “weapons of mass destruction.” Inspectors never found any such weapons, but Congress authorized the use of military force in both Iraq and Afghanistan beginning in 2003, which ultimately led to America’s longest war, ending only this year.
Powell later expressed regret for his part in what became regarded as a reckless rush into a costly war for America. In his memoir It Worked For Me, Lessons In Life and Leadership, he said that he did not realize at the time that much of the evidence of the supposed weapons was wrong.
“I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem,” Powell wrote. “My instincts failed me.”
Post Service Life
After leaving the Cabinet, Powell dedicated much of his energy to the speaker circuit and the leadership foundations that he was a part of. He and his wife Alma started America’s Promise, which was dedicated to supporting and encouraging leadership for youth from all walks of life. But his name had come up as a possible candidate for president since at least the 1990s.
He supported the campaign of Its. John McCain in 2008, and was even mentioned as a potential running mate. However, later that year Powell endorsed then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama during an interview on NBC News’ Meet The Press.
Although he had served in Republican administrations and described himself as a “moderate” GOP member,, he was highly critical of President Donald Trump, saying that the party needed to “get a grip” and stand up to the former president. “Right now, Republican leaders and members of the Congress ― both Senate and the House ― are holding back because they’re terrified of what will happen to any one of them if they speak out,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Powell is survived by his wife Alma; his son Michael, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005; and two daughters, Linda and Annemarie.
He was twice awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and also the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal.