The coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken yet another life, one notable outside the 700,000+ so far. Gen. Colin L. Powell succumbed to complications from the disease on the morning of Oct. 18, his family announced on his Facebook page.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the statement read.
Powell, who had been treated at Bethesda, Md’s Walter Reed National Medical Center was 84 years old. He became the first of his race to head up the Joint Chiefs Staff as well as serving as the Secretary of State. He attained these positions through his ability to garner the respect of both the Republican and Democratic sides of America’s political divide. Even so, his sterling reputation was blemished when he alleged that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the United Nations in 2003, claims which proved to be false.
The future soldier and statesman displayed no potential for greatness early on. The offspring, along with an older sister Marylyn, of Jamaican immigrants, he was born in April 1937, and grew up in the New York borough of the South Bronx. The neighborhood of his youth, Hunts Point, contained the ills that plagued the inner cities of 20th century America. And yet, his close-knit community of various creeds and ethnicities provided a degree of stability for young Colin.
“I never smoked marijuana, never got high, in fact never experimented with any drugs. And for a simple reason: my folks would have killed me,” he remembered in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.”
Passage into adulthood
Colin demonstrated no exceptional skill academically or athletically until he enrolled at the City College of New York (CCNY), where he pledged a campus ROTC society, and discovered a knack for military drill and ceremony. The structure and regimentation awakened something within the aspiring soldier, and in short order after receiving his degree in geology in 1958, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Mundane postings in Germany, then at Ft. Devens, Mass., were significant because he received his first company commands. More tellingly, a blind date yielded an introduction to a well-bred southern belle from one of the leading Negro families in Birmingham, Ala.
As befitting someone from that city s accomplished minority middle class (social activist Angela Davis; jazz pianist Sun Ra; and poet and activist Sonia Sanchez are just a few of its notable natives), Alma Johnson was expected to be an achiever. The daughter of a high school principal, she was a Fisk University graduate who’d come to Boston for training in audiology while moonlighting as a radio show host.
When her roommate asked her to go clubbing along with her, her soldier boyfriend and Lt. Powell, she reluctantly agreed. In spite of this inauspicious beginning, she warmed up to the baby-faced serviceman who “looked like a little lost twelve-year-old.”
For young Colin, soft spoken Alma was an intriguing departure from the brash New Yorkers he’d dated. In short order, the new couple became inseparable, engaged, and were wed in August of 1962, less than a year after meeting the previous November.
Now a Captain, Powell’s whirlwind romance and marriage to Alma would eventually yield three children, but the relationship was put on pause by orders sending the junior officer to a little known country on the other side of the globe called South Vietnam.
Field duty and combat seasoning
I am proud of the way American soldiers answered the call in a war so poorly conceived, conducted, and explained by their country’s leaders.
—from “My American Journey”
by Colin Powell with Joseph E. Perisico.
Powell’s tour of duty (1962 to 1963) occurred well before the American build-up of the late 1960s and early 1970s that embedded Vietnam into the American consciousness. His tenure afforded him a real world glimpse into the unconventional warfare that would epitomize the Cold War. He also won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat.
Upon his return to the States, the Powell brood had grown by one. Michael Kevin Powell had been born during his father’s duty overseas. Initially following his dad’s footsteps as an army officer, his military aspirations ended with a training mission injury in 1987. He went on to success in civilian life as a lawyer and as head of the Federal Communications Commission.
The Powells went on to have two more children, daughters Annemarie and Linda, along with two grandchildren.
Second tour of duty and controversy
My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam.
A second tour (1968-69), was dramatically different. By this time Powell had moved up the flagpole and was a major with the 23th Americal Division.
This tour was highlighted by his heading up the inquiry into the infamous My Lai massacre, where a platoon from his Division rounded up, then executed 347 women, old men, and children. Years later his handling of the affair fostered accusations that Powell was complicit in the Army’s efforts at covering up this atrocity. Nonetheless, this episode did not hinder his career progression. He came away from his Vietnam experiences with fodder that would form the basis of his worldview, and strategic thinking for his later career.
Once back home, Powell was fortuitously endowed with career-building perks in the form of graduate school, and a White House Fellowship. These breaks afforded him access to the political connections so vital to an officer’s advancement.
Now a Lt. Colonel, Powell was ordered to South Korea in 1973, where he took command of a battalion near that country’s Demilitarized Zone. Finding his unit beseeched with drug and racial turmoil which manifested itself in rioting, he simply jailed or threw the troublemakers, Black or White, out of the army.
Further up the flagpole
By the 1980s, Colin Powell was now a Brigadier General with stints at the Pentagon, and skills in side-stepping land mines that might impede his upward progression. A second star meant ascension to the office of Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, as his senior military assistant in planning the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and further interactions at the center of government.
From this vantage point he was close to the debacle that became known as the Iran-Contra affair. Powell was never indicted for any crime although Weinberger, his boss, was brought up on five felony charges after he resigned in 1992. He was later pardoned.
Instead Powell was embraced by the Ronald Reagan Presidency as its National Security Advisor (retaining his three star rank as a Lt. General), the first African-American in that posting. Two years later in 1989, he was awarded a fourth and final star.
“Decide what you are trying to achieve politically and if it can’t be achieved through political and diplomatic and economic means, and you have to use military force, then make sure you know exactly what you’re using the military force for and then apply it in a decisive manner.”
Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Four Star Gen. Powell burst into the public limelight as the architect of 1991’s Desert Storm, an operation to counter Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait. Powell and his international coalition’s surgical precision in dismantling Iraq’s military captivated the global psyche with its showcase of technological marvels like cruise missiles, “smart” bombs, and stealth aircraft.
The whole campaign was over in 42 days, and gave American prestige a much needed shot in the arm for its armed forces, still shaken by the embarrassment of the Vietnam Conflict a few years earlier.
Powell and his field commander, Gen. ‘Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf became household names. Upon their arrival back in the States they were lauded with parades, book deals, lucrative speaking engagements, and candidacy for political office. Schwarzkopf refrained from these offers aside from a biography and speaking tours. Rumors circulated around both men being promoted to General of the Army, a five star ranking not initiated since World War II. These promotions were not carried out.
“I am a Republican, yes. But I’m also an American citizen. And I try to make my political judgments on what I think is best for the country.”
After his 1993 retirement, Powell maintained a limited commitment to public life until 2000, when President George W. Bush pegged him as Secretary of State, the first Black man so honored.
In the wake of his Desert Storm triumph, Colin Powell regularly topped opinion polls as among the most popular men in America.
“…Colin Powell not only was better known and liked than (George W.) Bush but also ranked among the most admired of all Americans,” noted Cornell University history professor Walter Lafeber.
When pressed about his political affiliation, he diplomatically evaded the question for years before embracing the GOP. As time went on, he adopted the party line, which may explain his most memorable misstep. By February 2003, his presentation before the United Nations Security Council indicated that Iraq possessed the means to make Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
Later, these claims were proven false, and dismissed as a feeble attempt to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He later admitted his culpability to Barbara Walters in 2005: “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”
Eventually Powell became at odds with Bush’s foreign policy, and resigned in November of 2004. Condoleezza Rice was named as his successor.
Powell continued his moderate stance after his retirement, crossing the political line to endorse Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Presidency in 2008, 2012, and 2016.
Following January’s deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building, Powell said he no longer considered himself a Republican and admonished the party for putting political interests ahead of the interests of Americans.
“They should have known better, but they were so taken by their political standing and how none of them wanted to put themselves at political risk,” he said.
This year he had been suffering from blood cancer, which made him susceptible to the coronavirus that ultimately took his life.