American Army officer Colin Luther Powell (born 1937) served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and under President George Bush became the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-1993).
Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem, New York City on April 5, 1937, the son of a shipping clerk and a seamstress, both of whom were immigrants from Jamaica. Powell spent most of his childhood in the South Bronx, then regarded as a step up from Harlem. Despite the urgings of his parents that he should "strive for a good education" in order to "make something" of his life, Powell remained an ordinary student throughout high school. At City College of New York, Powell discovered himself; his retentive mind and leadership abilities made him a conspicuous success in the Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He graduated from the program in 1958 with the rank of cadet colonel, the highest awarded, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was then assigned to duty in West Germany. In 1962, while stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, Powell met and married Alma Vivian Johnson. The couple had three children.
Powell's next overseas assignment was in South Vietnam, where he was wounded in action. He then studied at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, finishing second in a class of more than twelve hundred officers. During a second tour in Vietnam he received the Soldier's Medal for pulling several men from a burning helicopter.
The army then provided Powell the time to study for a Master's degree in business administration at George Washington University. He received the degree in 1971, after which he worked as an analyst at the Pentagon before securing what he called a "dream job": an appointment as a prestigious White House fellow in the Office of Management and Budget under the director, Caspar Weinberger, and his deputy, Frank Carlucci, two men of rising influence in Washington who perceived Powell's uncommon abilities and who would help shape his career.
A man of commanding presence at six feet one inch and 200 pounds, Powell was assigned to South Korea in 1973 to command a battalion troubled by racial animosities. "I threw the bums out of the army and put the drug users in jail, " he recalled. "The rest, we ran four miles every morning, and by night they were too tired to get into trouble." Powell's prescription worked, and the tensions that had led to race riots before his arrival abated.
After additional service in Washington and an assignment as a brigade commander in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Powell returned to Washington in the late 1970s, attaining the rank of major general and holding advisory posts in the Pentagon and briefly in the Department of Energy. He next served at Fort Carson, Colorado, and at Fort Leavenworth before becoming military assistant to Weinberger, then secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, in 1983. While Powell was assisting Weinberger, the National Security Council (NSC) began looking at the possibility of sending American missiles to Iran in the hope of expediting the release of American hostages in the Middle East and turned to Powell to provide certain information about the missiles desired by Iran. Powell complied but subsequently questioned the scheme in writing, reminding the NSC leadership that there was a legal obligation to inform Congress of the proposed arms transfer. When it was pointed out that the plan had presidential authorization, Powell did what was requested of him. The illegal missile transfer was later exposed as a key element in the controversial Iran-Contra scandal. Powell's demonstrated record of opposition to the illegality of the transfer and his excellent demeanor in testifying before congressional investigating committees served him well. In June 1986 Powell received a choice corps command in West Germany but left it after six months at President Reagan's request to become Frank Carlucci's deputy on the National Security Council. Carlucci was endeavoring to rebuild the NSC after the Iran-Contra debacle.
In 1987 Powell replaced Carlucci as national security adviser, a post he held for the duration of the Reagan administration. Arms control and attempts to topple the Sandanista government of Nicaragua ranked high on the agendas of Powell and of other key policy-makers during this period. When President-elect George Bush advised Powell that he wished to name his own national security adviser, Powell could have chosen to leave the army to earn a substantial income on the lecture circuit or perhaps in the business world. Money, however, was not sufficient inducement for Powell to retire; promoted to full (four star) general, he took over the army's Forces Command, which had responsibility for overseeing the readiness of over a million regular, reserve, and National Guard personnel based in the United States. Selected over three dozen more senior generals, Powell was nominated by President Bush in 1989 to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the nation's most prestigious military position. Powell was the first black officer to hold this post.
As chairman of the JCS, Powell held a key role in formulating and refining plans for the December 1989 operation that eliminated the corrupt Manuel Noriega regime in Panama. Television appearances in which Powell explained the purpose of the operation brought him to the favorable attention of the American public. "In a performance that left politicians and viewers marveling, " observed a Wall Street Journal reporter, "he laid out the details in tough but carefully measured tones that may have done more than anything else to reassure lawmakers and the public about the predawn invasion."
Powell became similarly conspicuous during the first stages of Operation Desert Shield, the joint effort by the United States and several other nations through blockade and the mobilization of substantial forces in and near Saudi Arabia to pressure Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein into removing his forces from neighboring Kuwait. This small, oilrich nation had been occupied by Iraqi troops in August 1990. It soon became apparent that this operation, unlike the earlier one in Panama, would take months to decide and involved the risk of substantial casualties if and when hostilities broke out between the Iraqis and the international forces, the bulk of them American. It was thus uncertain whether Powell's largely unblemished record for excellent judgment and leadership would remain intact.
When Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm on January 16, 1991, Powell again demonstrated his successful leadership. Six weeks later the Iraqi army was crushed; the multinational forces stood completely victorious. For his part in this Persian Gulf War, General Powell, as well as field commander General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, was awarded a congressional gold medal.
When Powell was named to head the JCS, a former White House colleague remarked of his appointment: "No one ever thinks of Colin as being Black; they think of him as being good." Powell, however, never ignored his background in New York City or the prejudice he encountered in the 1960s when off base at various army posts in the South, "I've made myself very accessible to the Black press, " he once told an Ebony reporter, "and I do that as a way of just showing people, 'Hey, look at that dude. He came out of the South Bronx. If he got out, why can't I." Powell believed that his position as the nation's foremost military leader and spokesman provided a unique opportunity to deliver a positive message to African American youth.
As the youngest man to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell would have ample opportunity to accomplish even more should he choose to remain in public service. His name had even been mentioned in connection with the vice presidency by both liberals and conservatives.
Powell remains an active figure in government. During the 1996 presidential race, it was announced that Powell would run. He declined, citing various reasons. The withdrawal was disappointing to many Americans. Powell spends his time lecturing, writing and speaking.
Further Reading on Colin Luther Powell
In the absence of a full biography of Colin Powell, those seeking further information can consult several articles about him, including Simeon Booker, "Colin L. Powell: Black General at the Summit of U.S. Power" in Ebony (July 1988); Thomas M. DeFrank, "The Ultimate No. 2' for NSC" in Newsweek (November 16, 1987); Carl T. Rowan, "Called to Service: The Colin Powell Story" in Reader's Digest (December 1989); Marshall Brown, "Powell Reaches the Pinnacle of Pentagon Power" in Black Enterprise (October 1989); Barrett Seaman with Dan Goodgame, "A 'Complete Soldier' Makes It" in Time (August 21, 1989); Lou Cannon, "Antidote Ollie North" in Washington Post Magazine (August 7, 1988); and Laura B. Randolph, "Gen. Colin L. Powell: The World's Most Powerful Soldier" in Ebony (February 1990). Information regarding Powell's political career can be read in an article by J.F.O. Mcallister entitled "The Candidate of Dreams" Time (March 13, 1995).