Colin Powell Essay

This article is about the American politician. For the British soccer player, see Colin Powell (footballer).

Colin Powell
65th United States Secretary of State
In office
January 20, 2001 – January 26, 2005
PresidentGeorge W. Bush
DeputyRichard Armitage
Preceded byMadeleine Albright
Succeeded byCondoleezza Rice
12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
In office
October 1, 1989 – September 30, 1993
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Bill Clinton
DeputyRobert Herres
David Jeremiah
Preceded byWilliam Crowe
Succeeded byDavid Jeremiah(Acting)
16th National Security Advisor
In office
November 23, 1987 – January 20, 1989
PresidentRonald Reagan
DeputyJohn Negroponte
Preceded byFrank Carlucci
Succeeded byBrent Scowcroft
Personal details
BornColin Luther Powell
(1937-04-05) April 5, 1937 (age 80)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Alma Johnson (m. 1962)
EducationCity University of New York, City College(BS)
George Washington University(MBA)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1958–1993
Unit3rd Armored Division
23rd Infantry Division
CommandsV Corps
Joint Chiefs of Staff
Army Forces Command
Battles/warsVietnam War
Invasion of Panama
Persian Gulf War

Colin Luther Powell (; born April 5, 1937)[1] is an American statesman and a retired four-star general in the United States Army.[2] Powell was born in Harlem as the son of Jamaican immigrants. During his military career, Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987–1989), as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989) and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–1993), holding the latter position during the Persian Gulf War. Powell was the first, and so far the only, African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the 65thUnited States Secretary of State, serving under U.S. President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, the first African American to serve in that position.[3][4][5][6]

Powell was born in New York City in 1937 and was raised in the South Bronx. His parents, Luther and Maud Powell, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. Powell was educated in the New York City public schools, graduating from the City College of New York (CCNY), where he earned a bachelor's degree in geology. He also participated in ROTC at CCNY and received a commission as an Army second lieutenant upon graduation in June 1958. His further academic achievements include a Master of Business Administration degree from George Washington University.[7]

Powell was a professional soldier for 35 years, during which time he held myriad command and staff positions and rose to the rank of 4-star General. His last 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. During this time, he oversaw 28 crises, including Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He also formulated the Powell Doctrine.[7]

Following his military retirement, Powell wrote his best-selling autobiography, My American Journey. In addition, he pursued a career as a public speaker, addressing audiences across the country and abroad. Prior to his appointment as Secretary of State, Powell was the chairman of America's Promise - The Alliance for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing people from every sector of American life to build the character and competence of young people. He was nominated by President Bush on December 16, 2000 as Secretary of State. After being unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he was sworn in as the 65th Secretary of State on January 20, 2001.[7]

Powell is the recipient of numerous U.S. and foreign military awards and decorations. Powell's civilian awards include two Presidential Medal 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. Several schools and other institutions have been named in his honor and he holds honorary degrees from universities and colleges across the country. Powell is married to the former Alma Vivian Johnson of Birmingham, Alabama. The Powell family includes son Michael (ex-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission); daughters Linda and Anne; daughter-in-law Jane; and grandsons Jeffrey and Bryan.[7]

In 2016, while not a candidate for that year's election, Powell received three electoral votes for the office of President of the United States.

Early life and education

Powell was born on April 5, 1937,[8] in Harlem, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, to Jamaican immigrant parents Maud Arial (née McKoy) and Luther Theophilus Powell. His parents were both of mixed African and Scots ancestry.[9][10] Luther worked as a shippingclerk and Maud as a seamstress.[11] Powell was raised in the South Bronx and attended Morris High School, from which he graduated in 1954. (This school has since closed.)

While at school, Powell worked at a local baby furniture store, where he picked up Yiddish from the eastern European Jewish shopkeepers and some of the customers.[12] He also served as a Shabbos goy, helping Orthodox families with needed tasks on the Sabbath.[13] He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology from the City College of New York in 1958[14][15] and has said he was a 'C average' student.[16] He later earned an MBA degree from the George Washington University in 1971,[14] after his second tour in Vietnam.

Despite his parents' pronunciation of his name as , Powell has pronounced his name since childhood, after the heroic World War II flyer Colin P. Kelly Jr.[17] Public officials and radio and television reporters have used Powell's preferred pronunciation.

Military career

Powell was a professional soldier for 35 years, holding a variety of command and staff positions and rising to the rank of General.[18]


Powell described joining the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) during college as one of the happiest experiences of his life; discovering something he loved and could do well, he felt he had "found himself." According to Powell:

It was only once I was in college, about six months into college when I found something that I liked, and that was ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps in the military. And I not only liked it, but I was pretty good at it. That's what you really have to look for in life, something that you like, and something that you think you're pretty good at. And if you can put those two things together, then you're on the right track, and just drive on.[19]

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.

Upon graduation, he received a commission as an Armysecond lieutenant.[20] After attending basic training at Fort Benning, Powell was assigned to the 48th Infantry, in West Germany, as a platoon leader.[21]

Vietnam War

In his autobiography, Powell said he is haunted by the nightmare of the Vietnam War and felt that the leadership was very ineffective.

Captain Powell served a tour in Vietnam as a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) advisor from 1962 to 1963. While on patrol in a Viet Cong-held area, he was wounded by stepping on a punji stake.[22] The large infection made it difficult for him to walk, and caused his foot to swell for a short time, shortening his first tour.

He returned to Vietnam as a major in 1968, serving in the 23rd Infantry Division, then as assistant chief of staff of operations for the Americal Division. During the second tour in Vietnam he was decorated for bravery after he survived a helicopter crash, single-handedly rescuing three others, including division commander Major General Charles Martin Gettys, from the burning wreckage.[21][23]

Powell was charged with investigating a detailed letter by 11th Light Infantry Brigade soldier Tom Glen, which backed up rumored allegations of the My Lai Massacre. He 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 television and radio host Larry King, "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."[24]

After the Vietnam War

Powell served a White House Fellowship under President Richard Nixon from 1972 to 1973. During 1975–1976 he attended the National War College, Washington, D.C.[25]

In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell named several officers he served under who 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 insisted his troops train at night to fight a possible North Korean attack, and made them repeatedly watch the television film Brian's Song to promote racial harmony. Powell always professed that what set Emerson apart was his great love of his soldiers and concern for their welfare. After a race riot occurred, in which African American soldiers almost killed a White officer, Powell was charged by Emerson to crack down on black militants; Powell's efforts led to the discharge of one soldier, and other efforts to reduce racial tensions.[21]

A "political general"

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, Powell took over the command of V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany, from Robert Lewis "Sam" Wetzel.

Following the Iran Contra scandal, Powell became, at the age of 49, Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor, serving from 1987 to 1989 while retaining his Army commission as a lieutenant general.

In April 1989, after his tenure with the National Security Council, Powell was promoted to four-star general under President George H. W. Bush and briefly served as the Commander in Chief, Forces Command (FORSCOM), headquartered at Fort McPherson, Georgia, overseeing all Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard units in the Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. He became the third general since World War II to reach four-star rank without ever serving as a division commander, joining Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alexander Haig.

Later that year, President George H. W. Bush selected him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[26]

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Powell's 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. Powell was also the first JCS Chair who received his commission through ROTC.[27]

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.

As a military strategist, Powell 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". Powell continued as chairman of the JCS into the Clinton presidency but as a dedicated "realist" he considered himself a bad fit for an administration largely made up of liberal internationalists.[28] He clashed with then-U.S. ambassador to the United NationsMadeleine Albright over the Bosnian crisis, as he opposed any military interventions that didn't involve US interests.[29]

During his chairmanship of the JCS, there was discussion of awarding Powell a fifth star, granting him the rank of General of the Army. But even in the wake of public and Congressional pressure[30][31] to do so, Clinton-Gorepresidential transition team staffers decided against it.[32][33][34]

Dates of rank

GeneralApril 4, 1989
Lieutenant generalMarch 26, 1986
Major generalAugust 1, 1983
Brigadier generalJune 1, 1979
ColonelFebruary 1, 1976
Lieutenant colonelJuly 9, 1970
MajorMay 24, 1966
CaptainJune 2, 1962
First lieutenantDecember 30, 1959
Second lieutenantJune 9, 1958

Awards and decorations


Medals and ribbons

Foreign decorations

13 Rules of Leadership

First printed in the August 13, 1989 issue of Parade magazine,[38] these are Colin Powell's 13 Rules of Leadership.[39][40]

  1. It ain't as bad as you think.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done.
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
  6. Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can't make someone else's choices.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision.
  12. Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Potential presidential 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[41] or even potentially replacing Vice President Dan Quayle as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee,[42] Powell eventually declared himself a Republican and began to campaign for Republican candidates in 1995.[43] 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[44] and even leading New Hampshire polls for the GOP nomination,[45] 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.[47] Despite not standing in the race, Powell won the Republican New Hampshire Vice-Presidential primary on write-in votes.[48]

In 1997 Powell founded America's Promise with the objective of helping children from all socioeconomic sectors. That same year saw the establishment of The Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service. The mission of the Center is to "prepare new generations of publicly engaged leaders from populations previously underrepresented in public service and policy circles, to build a strong culture of civic engagement at City College, and to mobilize campus resources to meet pressing community needs and serve the public good." [49]

Powell was mentioned as a potential candidate in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, but decided against running.[50] Once Texas Governor George W. Bush secured the Republican nomination, Powell endorsed him for president and spoke at the 2000 Republican National Convention. Bush eventually won, and Powell was appointed Secretary of State.

In the electoral college vote count of 2016, Powell received three votes from faithless electors from Washington.

Secretary of State

As Secretary of State in the Bush administration, Powell was perceived as moderate. Powell was unanimously confirmed 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. [51]

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 September 11 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

President Ronald Reagan and National Security Advisor Powell in 1988
Powell in November 1989, on his official Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff portrait.
General Colin Powell, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, waves from his motorcade during the Persian Gulf War Welcome Home Parade in New York City.
It Worked for Me

In Life and Leadership

by Colin Powell and Tony Koltz

If you're looking for advice on leadership, it's good to start with a four-star general. Colin Powell's new memoir, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, is a collection of lessons learned and anecdotes drawn from his childhood in the Bronx, his military training and career, and his work under four presidential administrations. The memoir also includes Powell's candid reflections on the most controversial time in his career: the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003.

If there's a theme that runs throughout the book, it's Powell's love for the U.S. Army — from his days in ROTC, right through to becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell says that back when he was a lost 17-year-old at City College of New York, ROTC "saved" him and kept him in school.

"I found my place. I found discipline, I found structure, I found people that were like me and I liked, and I fell in love with the Army those first few months in ROTC, and it lasted for the next 40-odd years," Powell tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "People have asked me, 'What would you have done if you hadn't gone into the Army?' I'd say I'd probably be a bus driver, I don't know."

'I'll Never Leave It Behind'

But he didn't become a bus driver — Powell went on to become U.S. secretary of state under President George W. Bush. In 2003, he gave a now-famous presentation to the U.N. Security Council on evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction — which turned out not to exist. Powell addresses that presentation in his book — in what he says will be his first and last account of the affair.

"I'll never leave it behind," Powell says. "It was the most vivid presentation of the intelligence information that we had, and it was designed to be the most vivid presentation — that's why we did it at the U.N., and I spent a great deal of time getting that information ready."

The case for war had been made over the course of several months, and Powell says it had been accepted by the president, other world leaders, and most of the U.S. Congress. But he will always be remembered as "the one" who presented the information to the U.N. "When I presented it to the U.N., I had every assurance from the intelligence community that the information I had was correct," Powell says. "Turned out not to be."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the U.N. Security Council in New York on Feb. 5, 2003. He presented evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction — that turned out not to exist. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses the U.N. Security Council in New York on Feb. 5, 2003. He presented evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction — that turned out not to exist.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Powell writes that he now knows that the draft that he and then-CIA Director George Tenet were presented with hadn't actually come through the National Security Council at the White House, but rather from Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

"But I didn't know that at the time," Powell says. "I knew when the president asked me to make the presentation — I knew that the NSC was supposed to have been working on it, and therefore I would get something that was a near-finished document."

He wasn't aware, he says, that Scooter Libby, counsel to the vice president, was working on the document and that "it was not connected to the intelligence material, and so I couldn't use it as it was given to me."

CIA officials later wrote memoirs remarking on how bad the evidence was, and Powell says that he wonders: Where were they when the national intelligence estimate was being assembled?

"Some of them say that they tried to get it up to the top levels of the CIA, that those sources should not be used," Powell says.

But he found it disturbing that after some of the intelligence information fell apart, CIA officials said: Well, we know they never should have been used by Powell.

"Well, then it shouldn't have been used by the president, and shouldn't have been used by the Congress, shouldn't have been available to anybody," Powell says.

'Lessons Learned' In Iraq

The Army will take its lessons learned. They're excellent at looking into themselves and reflecting on what did we do right, what did we do wrong.

Colin Powell

After nearly eight years of war, the U.S. withdrew its last troops from Iraq in December. "The Army will take its lessons learned," Powell says. "They're excellent at looking into themselves and reflecting on what did we do right, what did we do wrong."

On the whole, Powell says the Army "did quite well," but that there were command issues that should have been handled differently. "A junior general should not have been suddenly given command of all of Iraq at that time," Powell says. "Some of the more senior commanders were sent home, and the central commander Gen. [Tommy] Franks essentially left and went into retirement."

There were also expectations about the course of the war that didn't turn out to be true.

"There was an assumption ... that this was all going to snap back in place, it would be easy once Baghdad fell," Powell says. "But it became obvious early on that was not going to be the case."

Gen. Franks and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought they had a sufficient number of troops — but greatly underestimated the force they would ultimately need. But Powell doesn't believe that the legacy of the Iraq war will be that the U.S. will always need more and more troops. And he doesn't think that's the right answer, either.

In one chapter, he refers to "The Powell Doctrine," which states: "Once you've decided what the political objective is and that you have to go to war, put in enough troops to be decisive," Powell says. "In this instance, the decisive point that they focused on was the fall of Baghdad, but ... that wasn't the end of the conflict; it was the beginning of a new phase of the conflict. Military planners should always be thinking about what happens after you accomplish that first thing, what else you're going to have to do."

Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008. "I'm proud of the vote I cast for him in 2008, I think he was absolutely the right choice," Powell says. When it comes to the 2012 election, Powell says he's "not prepared" to say who he'll be voting for. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008. "I'm proud of the vote I cast for him in 2008, I think he was absolutely the right choice," Powell says. When it comes to the 2012 election, Powell says he's "not prepared" to say who he'll be voting for.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Another Vote For Obama?

Powell was a star in Republican administrations, but in 2008, he announced that he would be voting for Barack Obama for president. Now, four years later, he's not prepared to say whether he'll be voting for Obama again.

"I'm proud of the vote I cast for him in 2008, I think he was absolutely the right choice," Powell says. "I think he's done some very, very positive things to stabilize our financial system, save the auto industry, to bring some regulation into the mix, and we've ended one war — the one in Iraq — we're working on phasing out Afghanistan, and we haven't gotten into any new ones."

But he has plenty of critiques of the Obama administration as well. "We didn't close Guantanamo as I would have hoped, and we still have an unemployment rate that's too high, and the economy has not quite recovered." Powell says. "Whether that's all the fault of the president or not will be up to the people to decide."

Powell has known Romney for many years and says he's a "very distinguished gentleman." Powell is looking forward to hearing what Romney has to say in the coming months.

"You're not just voting for an individual," Powell says. "In my judgment, you're voting for an agenda, you're voting for a platform, you're voting for a political philosophy. And I want to really hear what Mr. Romney has to say about that now that he's gotten through the primaries where he had to act in a somewhat different manner."

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