Colin Luther Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, who rose to become a four-star general in the U. S. Army, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first African American to serve as the United States Secretary of State, died of complications from the COVID-19 virus October 18. He was 84.
President Joseph Biden called Powell a “patriot of unmatched honor and dignity” and he ordered government flags to fly at half-staff through Friday.
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all,” Biden said in a White House statement. “Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity.”
As the news broke Monday, about the death of Powell, considered a hero in multi-racial circles, hearts also broke. Sentiments poured from the highest offices in the land to grassroots leaders – all who were inspired by Powell.
“General Powell was an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot. He was at the center of some of the most consequential events of our lifetimes – serving two decorated tours in Vietnam; guiding U.S. strategy in the Gulf War; serving as National Security Advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State; offering counsel to four presidents; and helping shape American foreign policy for decades,” wrote President Barack Obama. “Everyone who worked with General Powell appreciated his clarity of thought, insistence on seeing all sides, and ability to execute. And although he’d be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served.”
Obama continued, “Along the way, General Powell helped a generation of young people set their sights higher. He never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly. But he also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams, and through his steady and principled leadership, helped pave the way for so many who would follow. It was the way Colin Powell saw the world – not as a starry-eyed idealist, but as someone with deep and abiding faith in this country and what it stands for – that made him such a central figure.”
Born April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, Powell took advantage of humble opportunities at the City College of New York and Army ROTC to earn a commission that elevated him into a military career where he served in three Republican Administrations.
“I liked the structure and the discipline of the military,” Powell once said in a CNN profile from in the early 2000s. “I felt somewhat distinctive wearing a uniform. I hadn’t been distinctive in much else.”
In college, Powell went from being in charge of his Army ROTC drill team to commanding the entire unit and even though he would hold a number of lofty White House posts, his close associates said that his proudest post was getting his fourth star and becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush.
“General Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passed away this morning due to complications from Covid 19,” Powell’s family announced on Facebook Monday. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” they said, noting he was fully vaccinated.
Groomed by President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci, Powell was part of a small group of White House aides known as “the Vulcans,” and included in this group was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Powell became the first Black national security adviser during the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and under President George H.W. Bush his star continued to get brighter in the wake of the US-led coalition victory during the Gulf War.
Former President George W. Bush said in a statement Monday that Powell was “a great public servant” who was “such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend.”
Though Powell never ran for President he was highly respected. When he was nominated to become Secretary of State in 2001, he said, “I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country.”
Powell entered the Army after graduating in 1958, and later served two tours in South Vietnam during the 1960s, where he was wounded twice, including during a helicopter crash in which he rescued two soldiers.
Powell was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, appointed as Reagan’s final national security adviser in 1987 and was tapped by the elder Bush in 1989 to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear,” he told reporters in 1995. “And for me to pretend otherwise would not be honest to myself, it would not be honest to the American people.”
In February 2003, Powell delivered a speech before the United Nations in which he said that the US intelligence proved that Iraq had misled inspectors and hid weapons of mass destruction.
“There can be no doubt,” Powell warned, “that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”
But two years after Powell’s UN speech, a government report said the intelligence community was “dead wrong” and Iraq mass destruction capabilities were far less than Powell had stated.
National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said that Powell’s death is a tremendous loss to the nation.
“Gen. Powell was a trailblazer, statesman, and a great friend and supporter of the National Urban League. His tireless service to the nation and its highest ideals serves as an inspiration to all Americans. His passing is a tremendous loss.
“Gen. Powell will be remembered as a man of principle, courage and strength, who never wavered in his determination to hold America to the highest standards,” Morial said. “He is a role model whose life story will inspire generations of public servants who put the interests of the nation first regardless of party affiliation.”
“Secretary Colin Powell was a true statesman, and the nation has lost a true giant and real American hero,” said Judge Carlos Moore, president, National Bar Association. “The National Bar Association joins millions across the nation and around the world in mourning his loss while celebrating his life of distinguished service.”
Biden summed up Powell’s life as having something to offer all people: “From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else—in uniform and out—and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.”
Obama concluded that it was his historic presidential race that revealed the true character of Powell: “On a personal level, I was deeply appreciative that someone like General Powell, who had been associated with Republican administrations in the past, was willing to endorse me in 2008. But what impressed me even more was how he did it. At a time when conspiracy theories were swirling, with some questioning my faith, General Powell took the opportunity to get to the heart of the matter in a way only he could.
“‘The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian,’” General Powell said. “‘But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?’”
Obama said, “That’s who Colin Powell was. He understood what was best in this country, and tried to bring his own life, career, and public statements in line with that ideal. It’s why, for all the battles he fought and problems he solved, Michelle and I will always look to General Powell as an example of what America – and Americans – can and should be if we wish to remain the last, best hope of earth.”