Colin Powell

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Colin Luther Powell (1937-) is a retired general in the United States Army, who served in military posts including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), and then in civilian posts including Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Ronald Reagan Administration, and U.S. Secretary of State in the first term of the George W. Bush Administration. [1]

Like Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was courted by both political parties as a potential Presidential nominee after his retirement from the military. Like Eisenhower, he identified as a moderate Republican. He was the first African-American to be Chairman and Secretary.

Early life

The son of Jamaican immigrants, he grew up in the South Bronx section of New York City, he attended the City College of New York, and joined the school's "Pershing Rifles", its Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) unit. He was an average student, but the military caught his attention. He graduated in 1958 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army.

New York had a distinct cultural effect on him. In his autobiography, he writes of how he applied himself to menial jobs as a high school student, even in the face of racial discrimination, rising by merit. He learned to speak Yiddish.[2]

Army career

He spent 35 years in the U.S. Army, including a number of key politicomilitary posts including aide/executive assistant to senior civilian policymakers, and White House Service.

Powell had combat experience in the Vietnam War, which gave him a perspective different than civilian leaders that had not been there. [3] At State, he was close to Richard Armitage, who also had combat experience, and served in diplomatic assignments including Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador.


He served two tours in Vietnam, first as an adviser in 1962-1963, when he was wounded.

In 1968-1969, as a major, he began as a U.S. battalion executive officer, then a division deputy chief of staff for operations (a senior lieutenant colonel's job), and then an investigator for the My Lai massacre. There have been mixed reports on how aggressively he investigated or reported this incident.

His Vietnam experience, and frustration with American indecision, was later to become part of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine.

First Washington tour

Reassigned to the Army Staff from Vietnam, he earned an MBA at George Washington University in Washington, DC. After being promoted to major, he became a White House Fellow in the Nixon Administration. Working in the Office of Management and Budget, he started long-term relationships with two senior civilian officials, Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci. He also indulged in his hobby of restoring Volvo automobiles; a number of Washington officials drive old Volvos that he lovingly rebuilt.

Regular Army

Returning to Army duties, he commanded a battalion, attended the Army War College, and then and then a commanded a brigade, under LTG Hank "Gunfighter" Emerson. He was promoted to brigadier general, where he served as an assistant division commander under MG John Hudachek, with whom he clashed. Hudachek was to give him the only negative efficiency report of his Army service, which normally would have been career-ending.

Second Washington tour

Nevertheless, he continued to progress in the Carter Administration, becoming an assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and to the Secretary of Energy, and being promoted to major general. Again working with Frank Carlucci, he was on the Defense Department transition team between the Carter and Reagan Administrations.

He was one of the very few Army officers never to have commanded a division, normally a two-star assignment, although he commanded at all other levels.


In his autobiography, he said he was glad to return to his Army career, when, in 1986, he took the next step, in 1986, to become a lieutenant general commanding V Corps in Germany. After only six months, however, he accepted a direct request from Ronald Reagan to rejoin Carlucci, as deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Carlucci was rebuilding the National Security Council staff after the Iran-Contra affair, and trusted Powell. In 1987, Powell replaced Carlucci and served as National Security Adviser for the rest of the Administration.


After George H.W. Bush was elected, he returned to the Army. He was promoted to general to command United States Army Forces Command, which is considered a sufficiently joint responsibility to qualify him for a subsequent appointment as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

During his tenure, he was involved with both Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama, and then the Gulf War. During Operation DESERT SHIELD and Operation DESERT STORM, he was noted for managing the temperamental GEN H Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.; he was sometimes described as being to Schwarzkopf as George C. Marshall had been to Dwight D. Eisenhower in World War II. The personality management, however, was more like Eisenhower's management of GEN George Patton. He stayed on the Joint Chiefs through part of the Clinton years but retired from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, when his term ended, and retired from the Army.


Like Eisenhower, he was courted by both parties as a Presidential candidate. He honored a promise to his wife, Alma, not to run for political office. Instead, he spoke widely, and was involved in founding a foundation, America's Promise, the Alliance for Youth, "dedicated to mobilizing individuals, groups and organizations from every part of American life, to build and strengthen the character and competence of our youth."

Secretary of State

He was the U.S. Secretary of State in the first term of the George W. Bush Administration, often clashing with the more conservative ideologues such as Dick Cheney, and in control over foreign policy with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Ironically, next to his close friend and colleague Richard Armitage, he had the most combat experience of any senior civilian in the Administration, yet his counsel against war, and about war if it was to be fought, was largely ignored.

His February 5, 2003 speech before the United Nations,[4] charging Saddam Hussein with an active weapons of mass destruction program, was based on faulty intelligence, and hurt his reputation. In his first interview after leaving State, he told the London Daily Telegraph, "I’m very sore. I’m the one who made the television moment. I was mightily disappointed when the sourcing of it all became very suspect and everything started to fall apart". [5]

His chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, who had worked with him for 18 years, eventually went public in criticizing the speech particularly, and generally on how Powell's influence had been blocked by Cheney and Rumsfeld. [6]



  1. Home > Department History > People > Colin Luther Powell, U.S. Department of State
  2. Colin L. Powell with Joseph E. Persico (1996), My American Journey, Ballantine Books, ISBN 0345407288
  3. James Mann (2004), Rise of the Vulcans: the History of Bush's War Cabinet, Viking, ISBN 0670032990, p. 39
  4. Colin L. Powell (February 5, 2003), Remarks to the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Department of State
  5. "Colin Powell “Very Sore” About Having Made Case for Iraq Invasion Based on Faulty WMD Evidence", Nuclear Threat Initiative newswire, February 28, 2005
  6. Richard Leiby (19 January 2006), "Breaking Ranks: Larry Wilkerson Attacked the Iraq War. In the Process, He Lost the Friendship of Colin Powell.", Washington Post