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Colin Powell
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Purple Heart, 1963

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Legion of Merit, 1972

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Colin L. Powell
(1937 - )

By Thomson Gale

CBN.comAlready highly regarded by political and military leaders in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon, U.S. Army General Colin Powell first achieved national and international prominence in 1990 and 1991. Powell, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was one of the key leaders of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the military campaigns to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait from Iraqi control. During the Persian Gulf War, he was credited with skillfully balancing the political objectives of President George Bush and the strategy needs of General Norman Schwarzkopf and other military commanders in the field.

After the war in the Gulf, Powell was considered for the vice-presidency or even the presidency, but he resisted suggestions that he should run for America's highest office. However, when George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, Powell did not decline Bush's request that the retired general take on the position of Secretary of State. So, when the Bush administration took office in January of 2001, Powell became the first African American Secretary of State in U.S. history.

Colin Luther Powell was born in 1937 in Harlem, the son of Jamaican immigrants who had both gone to work in New York City's garment district. The young Powell grew up in the South Bronx, where he enjoyed a secure childhood, looked after by a closely knit family and a multi-ethnic community. He graduated from Morris High School in 1954 and received his B.A. in geology from the City College of New York in 1958. He was undistinguished as a student, but he excelled in the college's Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC), leading the precision drill team and attaining the top rank offered by the corps—cadet colonel. He was not West Point trained, but his achievements in the ROTC won him a commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Served in Vietnam

His first assignment was at the Fulda Gap in West Germany, where American and allied troops stood as an obstacle on the Soviet Union's most likely invasion route of Western Europe. In the 1960s, Powell served two tours of duty in South Vietnam. As an adviser to South Vietnamese troops, he was wounded in 1963 when he fell victim to a Vietcong booby trap. His second tour, from 1968 to 1969, as an Army Infantry officer, also ended when Powell was injured, this time in a helicopter crash from which he rescued two of his fellow soldiers. For his valor in Vietnam, he received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Soldier's Medal, and the Legion of Merit.

Back on the home front, Powell pursued an M.B.A. at George Washington University. After completing his graduate studies in 1971, he was awarded a prestigious White House fellowship, which gave him the opportunity to get his first taste of politics. From 1972 to 1973, he worked for Frank Carlucci, then-Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Caspar Weinberger. It was the beginning of Powell's education in the dynamics of the Washington bureaucracy. Over the next 15 years he returned to the political arena from time to time to continue that education.

From 1979 to 1981, Powell served the Carter administration as an executive assistant to Charles Duncan, Jr., the Secretary of Energy, and as senior military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense. When the Reagan administration came to Washington, Powell worked with Carlucci on the Defense Department's transition team, and then from 1983 to 1986 he joined Weinberger again, this time as military assistant to the Defense Secretary. While there, Powell contributed to the department's involvement in the invasion of Grenada and the bombing raid on Libya.

Between stints in the political arena, Powell continued to advance his military career. In 1973, he traveled to South Korea to take command of a battalion and then a year later he returned to Washington as a staff officer at the Pentagon. He completed his military education at the National War College in 1976 and took command of the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky that same year. In the early 1980s, he completed assignments as the assistant commander of the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, and as the deputy director at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was in West Germany again in 1987, this time as commanding general of the Fifth Corps in Frankfurt, when he was called back to Washington to work again with Frank Carlucci, the new National Security Adviser.

Began Working for National Security Council

Carlucci had been chosen to head the troubled National Security Council (NSC) in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal. Powell was not a stranger to the NSC's dealings under Admiral John Poindexter and Oliver North; he had first confronted the issue of arms sales to Iran while working under Weinberger at the Defense Department. Yet, even though he had been aware of the covert activities, he remained above reproach because he had always acted according to law and had not become involved until after presidential approval had been given.

Together Carlucci and Powell reorganized the NSC to reduce the possibility for free-lance foreign policy. When in 1987 Carlucci took over as Secretary of Defense for the departing Weinberger, Powell was called upon to take over leadership of the NSC. The move earned widespread approval in Washington because, as Fred Barnes wrote in the New Republic, Powell is "a national security adviser strong enough to settle policy disputes but without a personal agenda."

During his tenure at the NSC, Powell did speak out on a number of issues he felt were important to national security, including economic strength, control of technology exchanges, protection of the environment, a stable defense budget, free trade and foreign investment, research and development, and education. He also expressed his opposition to plans for the overthrow of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and to heavy spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"). Even so, as he told Barnes, "I'm principally a broker. I have strong views on things, but my job is to make sure the president gets the best information available to make an informed decision."

Appointed Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush rewarded Powell for the knowledge and skills he had acquired in the military and political arenas by naming him to the military's top post—Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the youngest man and first black to hold that position. In peacetime, the chairman's responsibilities have included overseeing the prioritization of Pentagon spending and keeping the channels of communication open between the military and the White House. They have also included drawing up plans for military action, first in Panama and then in the Middle East.

Because of a 1986 law redefining his role, the general had more influence than any Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since World War II. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, obliged Powell to exercise that authority. The day after the invasion, Powell advised the president that a number of options were open, including economic and diplomatic sanctions, as well as the use of military force; the Bush administration decided that decisive force was the necessary response. Operation Desert Shield, requiring the massive movement of troops and supplies to Saudi Arabia, was soon initiated as a show of force and to serve as a deterrent to further Iraqi aggression. After touring the Middle East, the general recommended increasing the number of troops to assure the success of an isolate and destroy strategy if it proved necessary. He told U.S. News and World Report: "You go in to win, and you go in to win decisively."

In the early stages of the operation, Powell again demonstrated his ability to manage people and bureaucracies. As European and Middle Eastern troops joined in a coalition against Iraq, Powell directed the quick integration of communications, operations, and authority into a command network under the direction of General Norman Schwarzkopf. During the planning of the air and land campaigns, he aided the president in making political decisions and kept him informed of military plans, but he also convinced the Washington warriors to leave the commanders in Saudi Arabia the space needed to carry out their missions.

He, too, avoided involvement in the minute details of day-to-day operations, exerting his authority only on major issues. He oversaw bombing missions on Baghdad only after the destruction of a suburban Baghdad bunker killed 400 civilians. He rejected Marine requests to launch a true amphibious assault on Kuwait instead of the feint scheduled to aid Schwarzkopf's encirclement of Kuwait by an end run through Iraq. He also convinced President Bush to respond to the February 21, 1991 Iraqi peace proposal with an ultimatum: the Iraqis must pull out of Kuwait by noon Washington time, February 23. When the deadline passed, the coalition began its land campaign later that night as scheduled.

Thrown Into the Spotlight

With the success of Operation Desert Storm, Powell was hurled into the spotlight of media and public attention. Powell found himself the target of public scrutiny and criticism. Some black leaders labeled him a servant of the white establishment and peace activists considered him a trigger-happy hawk. Such criticisms, however, were tempered by praise of him as a positive role model for young African Americans and as a committed defender of liberty.

Because of his leadership during the war effort and his experience as an insider in the Washington bureaucracy, Powell political analysts suggested him as a promising candidate for future political office, either as vice-president or president. But Powell shied away from such notions, and met with Vice-President Dan Quayle to assure him that the general had no designs on the nation's number two executive post. Powell also requested a second tour as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bruce B. Auster reported in U.S. News and World Report: "Powell is able to transfer his unquestioned personal integrity to the institution he leads in part because, while he wields more power than almost any of his Pentagon predecessors, he is not addicted to it."

As a black military leader, Powell has demonstrated his commitment to helping young black men and women succeed in the armed services. He has long contended that the military should not be criticized for putting a disproportionate number of young black men and women in harm's way, but rather praised for its history of providing opportunities to minorities. Powell was quoted in Black Enterprise as saying, "What we are dealing with now is a changing of hearts, changing of perspectives and of minds. We need to start to erase the cultural filter with respect to minorities."

America's Promise

After his retirement from his position as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, Powell shied from politics and pressure to run for high office, directing his energies instead toward helping America's youth. In 1997, Powell, along with Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carer, and Gerald Ford, attended the President's Summit for America's Future. The Summit, which took place in Philadelphia, called upon Americans to make youth a national priority and challenged citizens to dedicate their time to volunteer efforts that would improve the lives of America's 15 million impoverished children. Inspired by the Summit, Powell founded America's Promise, an organization which acts to mobilize the nation to provide America's children with five fundamental resources, or Five Promises. These Five Promises, according to the America's Promise website include: "ongoing relationships with caring adults—parents, mentors, tutors, or coaches; safe places with structured activities during nonschool hours; healthy start and future; marketable skills through effective education; and opportunities to give back through community service."

Although the organization focuses heavily on promoting volunteerism, Powell often preferred to emphasize the importance of youth development. In 1997, he spoke about the unparalleled importance of a loving adult in a child's life, saying that the only alternative, as quoted by U.S. News & World Report, is to "keep building more jails." The organization has a presence in over 500 communities and in all 50 states. Powell, as quoted on the America's Promise website, said, "America's Promise is pulling together the might of this nation to strengthen the character and competence of youth. And it's working."

Secretary of State

In 2000, after nearly 7 years out of the political arena, Powell found himself again solicited to serve a President Bush. But this time it was George Bush's son, George W. Bush, who, after being elected to the nation's highest office, called upon Powell to join his Cabinet of advisors. Bush asked Powell to become his Secretary of State. Powell agreed, and became the first African American ever to hold the office. Powell settled into his new job quickly. When Powell reported to work, State Department employees lined up just to shake hands with him. Some of them even wept for joy when they met the new Secretary.

Colin Powell has dedicated his life to the service his country. As a soldier, Powell demonstrated a firm commitment to protecting his country and securing a world where democratic values can flourish. Although he has preferred to avoid limelight of high office, Powell has become a prominent figure in U.S. politics, advising several American presidents. He has also dedicated himself to America's future—her children. Powell has become an American success story, but unlike the typical rags-to-riches story, Powell's success stems, not from monetary accumulation, but rather, from all that he has given in service to his fellow Americans.

August 22, 2003: Powell asked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to enlist security forces under Arafat's control to help crush Hamas and other groups held responsible for a Jerusalem bus bombing. Source: New York Times,, September 14, 2003.

September 26, 2003: Powell announced that the United States set a deadline of six months for Iraqi leaders working under United States-led occupation to produce a new constitution for Iraq. Source: New York Times,, October 6, 2003.

October 26, 2003: Powell conceded that the Bush administration had not expected armed resistance in Iraq to continue as long as it had at so high a level. He also denied that the administration was trying to minimize the seriousness of problems there or to mislead the public. Source: New York Times,, October 30, 2003.

December 2, 2003: Powell embarked on a five-nation, four-day tour, hoping to mend fences with Europeans upset by the United States strategy in Iraq and to strengthen the resolve of North African nations rattled by terror attacks to continue to fight Islamic militants. Source: New York Times,, December 4, 2003.

January 9, 2004: Powell conceded that despite his assertions to United Nations in 2003, he has no "smoking gun" proof of a link between former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government and Al Qaeda terrorists. Source: New York Times,, January 19, 2004.

February 26, 2004: Powell told Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to do what was best for his people and resign. Source:,, February 27, 2004.

March 17, 2004: Powell visited Afghan leaders in Kabul after Pakistani forces killed 24 suspected militants near the Afghanistan border. Source:,, March 17, 2004.

March 19, 2004: Powell, in an unscheduled visit to Baghdad, marked the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by praising that country's progress toward democracy. Source:,, March 20, 2004.

April 2, 2004: Powell said his prewar testimony to the United Nations Security Council about Iraq's alleged mobile, biological weapons labs, in February of 2003, was based on information that apparently was not "solid." Source:,, April 3, 2004.

April 19, 2004: Powell disputed portions of journalist Bob Woodward's book on the prelude to the war in Iraq, but confirmed that the White House told Bush administration officials to cooperate with the writing of Woodward's Plan of Attack. Source:,, April 20, 2004.

June 13, 2004: Powell said a State Department report that incorrectly showed a decline in worldwide terrorism in 2003 was a "big mistake." Source:,, June 13, 2004.

July 27, 2004: Powell, visiting Budapest, praised Hungary as "steadfast" in its commitment to the coalition in Iraq. Source:,, July 27, 2004.

July 30, 2004: Powell said a wave of kidnappings throughout Iraq deters countries from participating in that country's reconstruction. Source:,, July 30, 2004.

September 26, 2004: Powell said the United States will enter insurgent-heavy "no-go zones" in Iraq to clear the way for legitimate elections in January. Source:,, September 26, 2004.

November 15, 2004: Powell announced his resignation as U.S. Secretary of State. Source:,, November 15, 2004.

Further Reading


Black Enterprise, October 1989.
Ebony, July 1988.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1991.
Nation's Cities Weekly, June 5, 2000.
New Republic, May 30, 1988.
Newsweek, August 21, 1989; March 18, 1990, May 24, 1999; March 5, 2001.
New York Times, October 15, 1987; September 16, 1988; December 2, 1988; August 15, 1989.
Time, November 16, 1987; August 21, 1989.
U.S. News and World Report, April 25, 1988; December 24, 1990; February 4, 1991; March 18, 1991; December 8, 1997.
Washington Post, March 23, 1987; August 7, 1988; August 10, 1989; August 11, 1989.


Additional material was obtained online at the America's Promise website.

Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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