Powell, Colin Luther, 1937–2021, 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. Through the 1980s, Powell rose in rank in the military as well as serving as an advisor to the secretary of defense and president in various capacities. 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 played a crucial role in planning and coordinating the victory of U.S. and allied forces in the Persian Gulf War (1991). He was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom that year for his efforts in that war. (In 1993, he was awarded a second Presidential Medal of Freedom, with distinction, by Bill Clinton.
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. In Feb. 2003, Powell made a speech before the U.N. in advance of the second Iraq war that asserted that the Bush administration had evidence of Iraq's development of weapons of mass desruction; he later said he regretted making this speech, calling it a "blot" on his record. Powell was subsequently publicly critical of a number of administration policies, such as the Guantánamo military prison, and left the administration in early 2005. Powell surprised fellow Republicans by endorsing Barack Obama's presidential bid in 2008 (and again in 2012), and in his final years renounced the Republican Party following its embrace of Donald Trump.
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 © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History: Biographies