AFMC Command News

First African American Joint Chiefs Chairman Also Was the Youngest

  • Published
  • By Nick Simeone
  • DOD News

Retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was an ROTC cadet, rose to become the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the youngest, and later served as secretary of state, died Oct. 18 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 84.

Although he was fully vaccinated, his family said in a statement that he died of complications from COVID-19. "We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American," Powell's family said in a statement.

With a degree from the City University of New York, Powell was commissioned in 1958. By the time his nearly half-century career in public service had ended, the son of Jamaican immigrants had in many ways come to symbolize the American dream. He was a Black American who began his journey in a segregated nation while rising to the highest levels in government. His career was capped by his oversight of the 1991 Gulf War while chairman of the Joint Chiefs and later as secretary of state during the administration of President George W. Bush.

As chairman, Powell also presided over the U.S. invasions of Panama in 1989 and Somalia in 1992, as well as dozens of other U.S. military operations overseas. He was guided by his belief that when the U.S. military acts, it should do so with overwhelming force and only when the goals are clear and attainable — a philosophy that came to be known as the Powell Doctrine.

After the Persian Gulf War, Powell received a Congressional Gold Medal, struck in his honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At his retirement General Powell was awarded a second Presidential Medal of Freedom, this one with distinction. Later that year Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary Knight Commander of the Bath.   

Senior Positions

Powell also served as the senior military advisor to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. He helped to guide the U.S invasion of Grenada in 1983 that was carried out in response to a communist threat on the island. Three years later, he also was instrumental in U.S. retaliation for a terrorist attack at a West Berlin disco blamed on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in which two American servicemen were killed.

At Powell's retirement from the military in 1993, President Bill Clinton described the four-star general's career as "a victory for the American dream, for the principle that, in our nation, people can rise as far as their talent, their capacity, their dreams, and their discipline will carry them." In fact, Powell has described his career from cadet to soldier-statesman as an achievement that could only happen in America.

"Mine is a story of a Black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx and somehow rose to become the national security advisor to the president of the United States and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography "My American Journey."  "It is a story of service and soldiering. It is a story about the people who helped make me what I am." 

During his military career, Powell served in a variety of command and staff positions in the United States and overseas, including as a platoon leader in West Germany at the peak of the Cold War, a battalion commander in South Korea, as well as two tours in Vietnam. There, he served as an advisor to the South Vietnamese army and later as a senior commander in the 23rd Infantry Division. He received the Soldier's Medal after surviving a helicopter crash in which he pulled comrades from the burning wreckage and the Purple Heart after being injured by a booby-trap while on patrol. They are among more than a dozen military decorations he received, including the Legion of Merit.

After the Persian Gulf War, Powell received a Congressional Gold Medal, struck in his honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At his retirement General Powell was awarded a second Presidential Medal of Freedom, this one with distinction. Later that year, Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary Knight Commander of the Bath.      

Civil Rights Struggle

Powell's rapid rise through the military coincided with the struggle Black Americans were facing during the tumult of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In his autobiography, he drew a vivid contrast between the sacrifices that he and other Black American soldiers were making for the war in Vietnam and the reality they faced upon returning to a segregated South. He described how, as a wounded combat veteran, he was refused service at a restaurant in Georgia despite having risked his life for his country in the far-off war in Asia.

Upon becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush in 1989, Powell presided over the military in a world being reshaped by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was his experience in Vietnam, he would later write, that helped inform his judgment about when to use military force when he served as the nation's highest-ranking military officer.  

"Have a clear political objective and stick to it. Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes," he wrote. "Decisive force ends wars quickly and, in the long run, saves lives. Whatever threats we faced in the future, I intended to make these rules the bedrock of my military counsel."        

Almost immediately after becoming chairman, Powell faced a crisis in Panama, where longtime U.S. ally Gen. Manuel Noriega had annulled an election earlier in the year and had also been indicted in the United States on drug charges. U.S troops invaded the country in December 1989 to remove him. That was followed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, prompting the United States and a coalition of forces to go to war to liberate the tiny emirate. A year later, the U.S military landed on the beaches of Somalia to help feed a nation in the grip of a widespread famine.   

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Then came the beginning of President Bill Clinton's administration and with it a pledge by the incoming president to lift the ban preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. While he and the rest of the military leadership opposed the change, Powell was credited with crafting a compromise known as "don't ask, don't tell" in which homosexuals entering the military would not be asked about their sexual orientation and would be allowed to serve as long as they kept it private.

Powell rejected analogies made at the time to racial integration within the military.  "I continued to see a fundamental distinction. Requiring people of different color to live together in intimate situations is far different from requiring people of different sexual orientation to do so," he wrote in his autobiography.    

"Don't ask, don't tell" was repealed by the Obama administration in 2011, and gays and lesbians have since been able to serve openly. Powell said he supported the revision, acknowledging that views on gays in the military and public life had evolved.  

When the United States was attacked by al-Qaida terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, Powell had already retired from the military. But he was called back to government service that year to serve as President George W. Bush's secretary of state. In the aftermath of the attacks, Powell was tasked with building the case at the United Nations that Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction posed an acute threat to the United States and the world.

In an address to the United Nations Security Council during the final days before the 2003 Iraq invasion, Powell laid out a detailed case about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons program. "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more," he said, adding that the Iraqi leader was also working to acquire nuclear components.    

Remorse on Iraq

When no weapons were found after the invasion, and it became clear that the United States and others had acted, in part, on the basis of faulty intelligence, Powell recalled his testimony as a painful "blot" on his record. He said he deeply regretted his presentation and acknowledged that those who had provided the United States with such information were wrong. He announced his resignation as secretary of state the next year.

By the time his career in public service had ended, Powell had become as influential a military figure as he was a policy maker; he continued to appear as a frequent commentator on public affairs programs and in interviews. He also served on boards, delivered speeches around the world, and created the charity America's Promise, which works to help disadvantaged children.