Colin Luther Powell

Powell, Colin Luther, 1937–, U.S. army general and government official, b. New York City, grad., City College (B.S., 1958); George Washington Univ. (M.A., 1969). The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was the first African American and the youngest person to chair (1989–93) the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first African American to serve (2001–5) as secretary of state. He entered the U.S. army (1958) as a commissioned officer and served two tours of duty (1962–63, 1968–69) during the Vietnam War. In the 1970s he worked in several staff positions in the White House, including in the Office of Management and Budget, and also served in military command positions. In 1979 he was made a major general and the military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, a position he held until 1981, when he assumed command of the 4th Infantry Division. From 1983 to 1986 Powell was military assistant to the secretary of defense, and in 1986 he served as commander of the V Corps in Western Europe. The next year he was named assistant to the president for national security affairs.

In 1989, Powell was promoted to four-star general, becoming the first African American to hold that rank, and was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had an important role in planning the American invasion of Panama in late 1989, and prior to the Persian Gulf War (1991) he played a crucial role in planning and coordinating the victory of U.S. and allied forces. He declined to run for the U.S. presidency in 1995, despite widespread encouragement to do so, and in 1997 became chairman of America's Promise–the Alliance for Youth, a charitable organization formed to help needy and at-risk U.S. children. Powell was appointed secretary of state by President George W. Bush in 2001. He advocated the so-called Powell doctrine—that U.S. military power only be used in overwhelming strength to achieve well-defined strategic national interests—while promoting "a uniquely American internationalism," and he also showed a particular interest in African affairs. As secretary of state, however, his influence on foreign policy issues was not as great as that of National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice (who succeeded him in 2005), Vice President Dick Cheney, and others. Powell was subsequently publicly critical of a number of administration policies, such as the Guantánamo military prison.

See his autobiography (1995, with J. E. Persico); biography by K. DeYoung (2006); J. Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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