The legacy of Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who became the first Black U.S. secretary of state

Mildred Europa Taylor October 18, 2021
Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon in 1993 in Washington [File: Marcy Nighswander/The Associated Press]

Tributes are pouring in for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell who died Monday morning of complications from COVID-19, according to a statement from his family. The four-star general was the first Black Secretary of State in U.S. history, serving from 2001 to 2005 under former President George W. Bush. He was 84.

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the family said in the statement while thanking workers at the Walter Reid Medical Center “for their caring treatment”.

George W Bush said Powell was “a great public servant” and “a family man and a friend” who “was such a favourite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice”.

The highly decorated soldier, who went from combat duty in Vietnam to becoming the first Black national security adviser during the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, became a trusted military adviser to several U.S. politicians and helped shape American foreign policy. But he admitted that his legacy was damaged following his defense of an Iraq invasion that was based on faulty information.

Born Colin Luther Powell on April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrants Luther and Maud Powell. He was raised in the South Bronx and attended the New York City public schools. Powell graduated from Morris High School in 1954 having no specific plans about what he wanted to do with his life. It was while studying geology at the City College of New York that he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), a program that identified future military leaders, BBC reported.

Powell graduated in 1958 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He said while undergoing basic training in Georgia, he was not allowed in certain bars and restaurants because he was Black. But that did not stop the Jamaican American from pursuing his military career. In 1962, he was one of 16,000 advisers sent to South Vietnam by President John Kennedy to assist and train the South Vietnamese armed forces. Powell was injured during his tour.

Back in Vietnam in 1968, he was awarded for bravery after surviving a helicopter crash and rescuing three other soldiers from the burning helicopter. During this period, Powell was assigned to investigate the My Lai massacre, which has been described as one of the most horrific incidents of violence committed against unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War. Over 300 civilians were killed by U.S. Army forces. But Powell seemed to have denied any wrongdoing and stated in his report that, “Relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

Back from Vietnam, Powell obtained an MBA at Georgetown University in Washington before winning a White House Fellowship in 1972 under President Richard Nixon. He would move from a lieutenant colonel in South Korea to the Pentagon as a staff officer before studying at the Army War College. He was then promoted to brigadier general and commanded a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.

Powell assumed an advisory role in government and worked in the Carter administration for some time. He subsequently became a senior military aide to Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of State for Defence, where he helped to coordinate the invasion of Granada and the bombing of Libya, according to HISTORY.

Then came his position as a national security adviser in 1987. Two years later, he was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the U.S. Department of Defense. At the time, George HW Bush had assumed power. Powell’s appointment as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the age of 52 made him the youngest officer ever to hold the post and the first from an African-American background, according to BBC.

This was during the 1991 Gulf War in which U.S.-led forces expelled Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait. He played a leading role in planning the invasion of Panama (1989) and the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations of the Persian Gulf crisis and war. He would become a national figure during the Persian Gulf War, developing the “Powell Doctrine”. Based on the Vietnam experience, Powell believed that if the U.S. goes to war, it has to have a clear military objective.

Powell continued as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the early months of the Clinton administration and later publicly disagreed with the president on the issue of admitting gays into the military. He retired from the Army in 1993 and joined Senator Sam Nunn and former President Jimmy Carter the following year on a peacekeeping expedition to Haiti which led to the end of military rule and a return to an elected government in that country.

There were speculations that Powell would enter politics after he retired from the military. And even though he decided not to run for president in 1996, he joined the Republican Party and spoke out on national issues.

In 2000, George W Bush appointed Powell as secretary of state. Responsible for U.S. relationships with foreign countries, it was the highest rank in civilian government ever held by an African American at the time.

“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country,” Powell said of his historic nomination during his Senate confirmation hearing. “It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”

But Powell faced backlash for backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. He had earlier opposed U.S. involvement in Iraq but later changed his stance and even sought broader support for the Iraq War by appearing before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 to present what he said was evidence that Iraq had concealed an ongoing weapons development program, as stated by HISTORY.

But less than two years after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was toppled, Powell testified before Congress that the intelligence sources he used in his presentation to the UN in February 2003 were “wrong”. He said it was unlikely that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction”.

Not too long after, Powell resigned as secretary of state but he continued to speak on national issues and never shied away from criticizing the Bush administration. In 2008, the man whose career was marked by firsts endorsed Barack Obama for the U.S. presidency, touting Obama’s “ability to inspire” and the “inclusive nature of his campaign”. Powell is survived by his wife, Alma Vivian Powell, whom he married in 1962, as well as three children. Powell’s books include the autobiography My American Journey (1995) and It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (2012).

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Powell’s speech at the UN will be part of his legacy, but should not define him.

“The way we’ve got to look at Colin Powell is the cumulative, over his entire life and career,” Hagel said, according to USA Today. “That speech is part of it. And I think he didn’t want anybody to whitewash that. No, it was a decision he made, and it was a wrong decision. But you’ve got to look at the cumulative, what did you do with all your years? I think he comes out pretty damn good.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 18, 2021


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