Colin Powell died early Monday morning, according to a statement from his family on Powell’s official Facebook page. Powell’s family stated that the cause of death was due to complications from the COVID- 19 virus, although Powell was fully vaccinated.
As news of Powell’s death circulated, current and past defense officials commented on Powell’s legacy, both as an international statesman and a mentor.
While on an overseas trip in the Republic of Georgia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered an emotional statement to traveling press on the death of Powell, noting his role as the first African-American Secretary of State and a man who was “respected around the globe” in that role.
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Austin said. “Alma [his wife] lost a great husband, and the family lost a tremendous father. And I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor.”
Additionally, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey stated his “friend and mentor” Powell, whom Dempsey said was also “a superb soldier, statesman, and lifelong public servant.”
Powell was, according to his State Department biography, born in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem on Apr. 5, 1937. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was raised and educated in New York City. Upon graduating from the City College of New York in 1958, Powell commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Powell served in the U.S. Army for 35 years, which included two tours in Vietnam and South Korea and Cold War West Germany. In 1987 then-President Ronald Reagan appointed Powell as Deputy National Security Advisor. In 1988 Reagan named Powell his National Security Advisor, which he remained in until he was promoted to General in 1989.
“I thought it was a stroke of genius to recommend him for the job, one of my best decisions,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told the University of Virginia. “When I think back now on my time there, it’s not possible to conceive of my tour without Colin Powell as an integral part of it.”
Following his election as President in 1989, George H.W. Bush appointed Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which Powell held until retiring from active duty in 1993. During his tenure as Chairman, Powell oversaw 28 crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
While then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein claimed that Desert Storm would lead to the “mother of all battles,” it turned into a rout of Iraq forces from the battlefield within days. According to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who during Desert Storm was Deputy National Security Advisor to President George H.W. Bush, images of carnage from the battlefield had a profound impact on Powell, a combat veteran of Vietnam.
“And Colin, basically at one of our meetings, and I can’t remember the day, essentially said, ‘This is turning from a military conflict into a rout and from a rout into a massacre, and the American army does not do massacres,’” Gates said. “He said, ‘I think that we will have completed our objectives and be prepared to stop within 24 hours.’ Then the next day he came in and we started talking about a cessation of fighting.”
After President Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, Powell remained Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under the new Democrat-led administration. Tony Lake, National Security Advisor under President Clinton, remembered Powell as a source of sober advice and experience as Lake assumed his duties in the White House.
“Colin had been one of the first people I’d talked to when I came to Washington to take on the job,” Lake told UVA. “I remember his confirming my view of how to deal with the press. I mean, this is Colin Powell, hero of Desert Storm, even though he kind of opposed it— And he’d been national security advisor and all that.”
Powell’s retired from the military in 1993 after 35 years on active duty. His centrist politics and public popularity led to speculation that he would run for office. However, Powell never did. Powell told CNN in 2009 that his wife was fearful of the impact that politics might have on their family life.
“But I was a soldier. That wasn’t my concern,” Powell told CNN. “I never found inside of me the internal passion that you’ve got to have to run for elected office.”
Instead of a political run following his retirement from active duty, Powell founded the “America’s Promise” organization, which focused on helping at-risk children. Although he eschewed a run at political office, it did not mean Powell was finished serving in government.
On Jan. 20, 2001, Powell was confirmed as the first African-American Secretary of state, serving under George W. Bush. At the beginning of his, Powell focused on reaffirming U.S. alliances and reforming the Department of State. However, following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the focus soon shifted to the new Global War on Terror.
One of the more controversial moments of Powell’s career occurred in Feb. 2003, when Powell presented intelligence to the United Nations regarding potential Iraq “weapons of mass destruction.” Although some of this intelligence, according to the Department of State, was disproved in 2004, at the time, it caused the Bush administration to invade Iraq preemptively. In a 2016 interview with PBS, Powell referred to this as a “blot” on his record.
“I went up to [President Bush’s] private quarters in the White House on the evening of Aug. 5, 2002, for dinner,” Powell told PBS. “I just laid it out for him. I said: ‘Mr. President, it isn’t just a simple matter of going to Baghdad. I know how to do that. What happens after?
“You have to remember that at the time I gave the speech on Feb. 5, the President had already made this decision for military action. The dice had been tossed. That’s what we were going to do,” Powell said.
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Story originally published on Military Times, our sister publication.