Colin L. Powell, who in four decades of public life served as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat, and national security adviser, and whose speech at the United Nations in 2003 helped pave the way for the United States to go to war in Iraq, died on Monday. He was 84.
The cause was complications of COVID-19, his family said in a statement, adding that he had been vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., where he died. General Powell had undergone treatment for multiple myeloma, which compromised his immune system, a spokeswoman said. She said he was due to receive a booster shot for his vaccine last week but could not because he had fallen ill.
General Powell was a pathbreaker serving as the country’s first Black national security adviser, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state. Beginning with his 35 years in the Army, he was emblematic of the ability of minorities to use the military as a ladder of opportunity.
His was a classic American success story. Born in Harlem of Jamaican parents, General Powell grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from City College of New York, joining the Army through the ROTC. Starting as a young second lieutenant commissioned in the dawn of a newly desegregated Army, he served two decorated combat tours in Vietnam. He was later national security adviser to President Reagan at the end of the Cold War, helping negotiate arms treaties amid an era of cooperation with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.
As chair of the Joint Chiefs, he was the architect of the invasion of Panama in 1989 and of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq. Along with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, General Powell reshaped the US Cold War military that had stood ready at the Iron Curtain for half a century. In doing so, he stamped the Powell Doctrine on military operations: Identify clear political objectives, gain public support, and use decisive and overwhelming force to defeat enemy forces.
When briefing reporters at the Pentagon at the beginning of the Gulf War, General Powell summed up the military’s approach: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple,” he said. “First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”
It was a concept that seemed less well-suited to the messy conflicts in the Balkans that came in the 1990s and in combating terrorism in a world transformed after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
By the time he retired from the military in 1993, General Powell was the most popular public figure in America, owing to his straightforwardness, his leadership qualities, and his ability to speak in blunt tones that Americans appreciated.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, he analyzed himself in the third person: “Powell is a problem-solver. He was taught as a soldier to solve problems. So he has views, but he’s not an ideologue. He has passion but he’s not a fanatic. He’s first and foremost a problem-solver.”
Once retired, General Powell, a lifelong independent while in uniform, was courted as a presidential contender by Republicans and Democrats, becoming America’s most political general since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He wrote a best-selling memoir, “My American Journey,” and flirted with a run for the presidency before deciding in 1995 that campaigning for office wasn’t for him.
He returned to public service in 2001 as secretary of state to President George W. Bush, whose father General Powell had served as chair of the Joint Chiefs a decade earlier.
But in the Bush administration, General Powell was the odd man out, fighting internally with Cheney, then vice president, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the ear of Bush and for foreign policy dominance.
He left at the end of Bush’s first term under the cloud of the ever-worsening war in Iraq begun after Sept. 11, and growing questions about whether he could have and should have done more to object to it. Those questions swirled in part around his UN speech, which was based on false intelligence and which became the source of lifelong regret.
He kept a low profile for the next few years but with just over two weeks left in the 2008 presidential campaign, General Powell, a declared Republican, gave a forceful endorsement to Senator Barack Obama, calling him a “transformational figure.” General Powell’s backing was criticized by conservative Republicans. But it eased the doubts among some independents and moderates and largely neutralized concerns about Obama’s lack of experience to be commander in chief.
When it came time to elect Obama’s successor, General Powell continued his support of Democrats, saying he would vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Before the election, he expressed disgust for Trump in a batch of leaked e-mails that his spokesperson confirmed as authentic.
“Trump is a national disgrace and an international pariah,” General Powell wrote in one e-mail. Trump’s attacks on whether Obama had been born in the United States also troubled him. “Yup, the whole birther movement was racist,” he said.
In the next election, General Powell backed Joe Biden, delivering a message of support for him at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937, and reared in the ethnically mixed Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. His parents, Luther Powell, a shipping-room foreman in Manhattan’s garment district, and Maud Ariel McKoy, a seamstress, were immigrants from Jamaica.
The young Powell graduated from Morris High School in the Bronx. By his own account, he was a mediocre student, carrying a C average at City College of New York, as a geology major.
An early turning point came when he enrolled in the college’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program, drawn by the camaraderie it fostered, the discipline it imposed, and its well-defined goals. He joined the Pershing Rifles, a drill team started by General John J. Pershing, a top American commander in World War I. Even after becoming a general, Powell kept on his desk a pen set he had won for a drill-team competition decades earlier.
During a summer ROTC training tour in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1957, he got a pronounced taste of racism when he was forced to use segregated washrooms at gas stations in the South on the drive home to New York. After graduating from City College in June 1958, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, the start of a 35-year military career.
While in the service, General Powell met Alma Vivian Johnson on a blind date, and they married in August 1962. In addition to his wife, he leaves two daughters, Linda Powell and Anne Powell Lyons; a son, Michael, who served as chair of the Federal Communications Commission; and four grandchildren.
General Powell arrived in Saigon on Christmas Day 1962 for a one-year tour as adviser to a 400-man South Vietnamese army battalion in the jungle. He completed the tour “a true believer” in the US effort, he later said, though the first inklings of skepticism toward the war were showing through.
He arrived for his second tour in Vietnam in July 1968, serving as executive officer of an infantry battalion, then a division operations officer. Four months into his tour his helicopter crashed. He dragged his commander, Major General Charles M. Gettys, out of the wreck, suffering a broken ankle.
He rose quickly through the ranks — including gaining a battalion command in Korea in 1973 and a brigade command in the elite 101st Airborne Division in 1976. He was tapped as a “water walker” by his peers, a term military men reserve for the most talented officers.
In 1979, Powell, then 42, was promoted to one-star general, becoming the youngest general officer in the Army at the time. After serving as Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger’s senior military assistant, General Powell, in the spring of 1986, went off to command V Corps, skipping division command altogether in leading 75,000 soldiers in West Germany in the waning years of the Cold War. Just five months later, Reagan summoned him back to Washington to be national security adviser, a post in which he played a pivotal role in helping to usher in a new era of cooperation with Gorbachev.
General Powell left the White House in 1989 to return to lead the Army’s Forces Command; the promotion made him only the fourth Black four-star general in Army history. He saw himself not only as a model for Black soldiers but also as a challenge to white bigotry.
General Powell had met Cheney when Cheney was a top House Republican leader and General Powell was national security adviser. In his autobiography, General Powell called Cheney “incisive, smart, no small talk, never showing any more surface than necessary” — a description that would come back to haunt General Powell more than a decade later.
In October 1989, he succeeded Admiral William J. Crowe as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leapfrogging over 14 more senior four-star officers. He was the first chair to fully exercise power under the recently approved Goldwater-Nichols legislation, which made the chair the “principal military adviser to the president and secretary of defense.”
Along with Cheney, General Powell presided over an active-duty military that had been cut in size by one-quarter since its Cold War peak.
The promise of peace after the fall of the Iron Curtain was stopped short when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990. General Powell urged caution and advocated imposing sanctions on Hussein’s regime rather than using military might. After President George H.W. Bush ordered the attack to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, General Powell oversaw the military’s buildup of more than 500,000 troops in the Saudi desert.
The Powell doctrine was born out of the US military’s long-standing frustrations in the Vietnam War, in which the United States gradually escalated the use of force and declared periodic pauses in its bombing campaign. If US force is to be used, proponents of the doctrine said, it should be overpowering and decisive.
The purest examples of the Powell doctrine were the 1991 war with Iraq and the 1989 invasion of Panama, when the US military stormed the country in a several-day blitz and captured its leader, Manuel Noriega.
General Powell’s relationship with Cheney was professional but distant. “He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together,” General Powell wrote. (Years later, that prickly relationship resurfaced when General Powell and Cheney clashed in the White House of President George W. Bush. After Cheney, in a 2011 memoir, wrote that General Powell had felt more comfortable expressing his views about Iraq to the public than to Bush, General Powell criticized him for taking “cheap shots.”)
In his final days as chair in 1993, 18 US troops were killed pursuing a warlord in Mogadishu, Somalia, in an incident that became known as “Blackhawk Down,” after two transport helicopters were shot down. A Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry blamed General Powell and Les Aspin, the defense secretary at the time, for leaving Army Rangers without sufficient protection.
After retiring in October 1993, General Powell reportedly received a $6 million advance to write his memoirs. “My American Journey,” written with Joseph E. Persico, was released in September 1995, and was an immediate bestseller.
As he flirted for a run for the presidency, huge crowds turned out for his booking signings in 1995.
He returned to government in December 2000, when he was the first person appointed to the Cabinet of President-elect George W. Bush.
His assignment as secretary of state started with high hopes and soaring rhetoric from his new boss. “General Powell is an American hero, an American example, and a great American story,” Bush said in announcing his choice on Dec. 16, 2000. “It’s a great day when a son of the South Bronx succeeds to the office first held by Thomas Jefferson.”
General Powell reinvigorated a demoralized department. A computer buff, he brought 21st-century technology to the department and its far-flung embassies. He ordered high-speed Internet into overseas posts and expanded training for senior Foreign Service officers and political appointees assigned abroad.
General Powell already had a taste of the diplomatic world when he was national security adviser and chair of the Joint Chiefs. And after he retired from the military, Clinton dispatched him, Senator Sam Nunn and former president Jimmy Carter in September 1994 to stave off a potentially bloody invasion of Haiti. The three reached a last-minute agreement with the ruling military junta, allowing a peaceful landing of US forces to help stabilize the country amid unrest.
Clinton had sounded out General Powell for the secretary of state job in his administration, but Powell declined.
But when George W. Bush asked him to take the post nearly a decade later, General Powell jumped at the opportunity. He had known Bush, whom he had called “Sonny,” when his father was president. But he had only passing acquaintance with him before the 2000 campaign. Indeed, many political advisers in the Bush campaign were initially wary of the appointment because General Powell had indicated that he might support the Republican candidacy of his old friend, Senator John McCain, in the 2000 primaries.
General Powell took the job at Foggy Bottom without having extensive conversations with Bush about the president’s views and what Bush expected. In the first few months of the new administration, he was forced to reverse his publicly stated goal of engaging with North Korea’s hermetic regime and adopt the White House’s more confrontational approach to preventing the North from developing nuclear weapons.
He clashed with Cheney and some of the more conservative members of Bush’s foreign policy team, and was slow to discern his isolation from the rest of the national security team. “The years at State were quite difficult,” said William H. Taft IV, a longtime friend who served as the State Department’s legal adviser during Bush’s first term. “They were with people who had different world views.”
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, put the country on a war footing and galvanized Bush’s war council. But eight months after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had fallen, the United States was secretly planning another war: to oust Hussein from Iraq once and for all.
General Powell was a reluctant warrior in this impending fight, warning Bush that invading Iraq could destabilize the Middle East, upset oil markets, and divert political will and resources from the unfinished fight against Al Qaeda. In a two-hour meeting with Bush on Aug. 5, 2002, General Powell laid down what became known as the Pottery Barn rules: “You break it, you’re going to own it.”
As he did in the Persian Gulf War, General Powell did not recommend whether the country should go to war or not — that he believed was the president’s prerogative alone — but he outlined options. After a failed diplomatic effort to avert a conflict, Bush turned to General Powell to bolster the administration’s case for use of force if Hussein did not comply with international demands.
In a 76-minute speech at the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, General Powell pressed the US case for a possible war to disarm Iraq, presenting photographs, electronic intercepts of conversations between Iraqi military officers, and information from defectors aimed at proving that Hussein posed an imminent danger to the world.
In the Bush administration’s most explicit effort to connect the activities between Iraq and Al Qaeda, General Powell suggested that Iraq’s lethal weapons could be given at any time to terrorists who could use them against the United States or Europe.
He provided new details about what he said were Iraq’s effort to develop mobile laboratories to make germ weapons. He asserted that Iraq had sought to hide missiles in its western desert. Significantly, he cited intelligence reports that Hussein had authorized his military to use poison gas if the United States invaded.
Before the speech, General Powell had spent several days at the CIA grilling analysts on the intelligence, paring back many of the claims in an early White House draft of the speech that he thought were unsupported. Now he felt confident, he told aides before the address in New York.
“Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world,” General Powell declared.
The speech failed to persuade many skeptics in the international community, but General Powell’s personal appeal swung many Americans to support the war. After US troops invaded in March 2003, however, it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence had been wrong.
Two years later, General Powell told Barbara Walters of ABC News that his speech to the United Nations had been “painful” for him personally and would forever be a “blot” on his record.
“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” General Powell said, acknowledging that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”
He left office in January 2004, returning to life as a private citizen. In 1997, he had founded America’s Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children. He later served as the chair of the board of visitors of the School for Civic and Global Leadership, named for him at the City University of New York.
Years later, the sting of the United Nations speech still pained him. Yet he sought to move on. “Let others judge me,” General Powell said in the 2007 interview. “All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best.”