Biography of Colin Powell, Top US General, National Security Advisor

Colin Powell

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Colin Powell (born Colin Luther Powell on April 5, 1937) is an American statesman and retired United States Army four-star general who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War. From 2001 to 2005, he served under President George W. Bush as the 65th United States secretary of state, the first African American to hold that position.

Fast Facts: Colin Powell

  • Known For: American statesman, retired four-star general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security advisor, and secretary of state
  • Born: April 5, 1937 in New York City, New York
  • Parents: Maud Arial McKoy and Luther Theophilus Powell
  • Education: City College of New York, George Washington University (MBA, 1971)
  • Published Works: My American Journey, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership
  • Military Awards and Honors: Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Soldier's Medal, two Purple Hearts
  • Civilian Awards and Honors: President's Citizens Medal, Congressional Gold Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • Spouse: Alma Vivian Johnson
  • Children: Michael, Linda, and Annemarie
  • Notable Quote: “There is no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Early Life and Education

Colin Powell was born on April 5, 1937, in the Harlem neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York City. His Jamaican immigrant parents, Maud Arial McKoy and Luther Theophilus Powell, were both of mixed African and Scottish ancestry. Raised in the South Bronx, Powell graduated from Morris High School in 1954. He then attended the City College of New York, graduating in 1958 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After serving two tours in Vietnam, Powell continued his education at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., earning an MBA in 1971.

Early Military Career 

While attending George Washington University, Powell participated in the military Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. It was in the ROTC where Powell has said he “found himself,” stating of military life, “…I not only liked it, but I was pretty good at it.” After graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. 

Colin Powell
Colin Powell. Bachrach Collection / Getty Images

After completing basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Powell served as a platoon leader with the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany. He next served as a company commander of the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where he was promoted to the rank of captain.

Vietnam War

During his first of two tours in Vietnam, Powell served as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion from December 1962 to November 1963. Suffering a foot wound while on patrol in an enemy-held area, he received a Purple Heart. After recovering, he completed the Infantry Officer Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was promoted to major in 1966. In 1968, he attended Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, graduating second in his class of 1,244.

In June 1968, Major Powell began his second tour in Vietnam, serving as an executive officer with the 23rd Infantry “Americal” Division. On November 16, 1968, a helicopter transporting Powell crashed. Despite being injured himself, he continued to return to the burning helicopter until he had rescued all of his comrades, including division commander Major General Charles M. Gettys. For his life-saving actions, Powell was awarded the Soldier's Medal for bravery. 

Also during his second tour, Major Powell was assigned to investigate reports of the March 16, 1968, My Lai massacre, in which more than 300 Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. Army forces. Powell’s report to command appeared to dismiss allegations of U.S. atrocities, stating, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” His findings would later be criticized as a whitewashing of the incident. In a May 4, 2004 interview on the Larry King Live television show, Powell remarked, “I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”

Post-Vietnam War

Richard M. Nixon;Colin L. Powell
US Pres. Richard Nixon (L) shaking hands w. Lt. Col. Colin Powell in Oval Office, at White House. The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

Colin Powell’s post-Vietnam military career led him to the world of politics. In 1972, he won a White House fellowship in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during the Richard Nixon administration. His work at OMB impressed Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, who would go on to serve as secretary of defense and national security adviser, respectively, under President Ronald Reagan

After being promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1973, Powell commanded Army divisions protecting the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of Korea. From 1974 to 1975, he returned to Washington as a troop-strength analyst in the Department of Defense. After attending the National War College from 1975 to 1976, Powell was promoted to full colonel and given command of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. 

In July 1977, Colonel Powell was appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense by President Jimmy Carter and was promoted to brigadier general in 1979. In 1982, General Powell was placed in command of U.S. Army Combined Arms Combat Development Activity at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Powell returned to the Pentagon as senior assistant to the secretary of defense in July 1983 and was promoted to major general in August. In July 1986, while commanding V Corps in Europe, he was promoted to lieutenant general. From December 1987 to January 1989, Powell served as national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan and was made a four-star general in April 1989.

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff 

US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (L) stands by as
PANAMA CITY, PANAMA: US Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (L) stands by as General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs reporters at the Pentagon 20 December 1989 about the military operation to remove Panama's General Manuel Antonio Noriega from power and bring him to the US for trial on drug charges. AFP / Getty Images

Powell began his final military assignment on October 1, 1989, when President George H. W. Bush appointed him as the nation’s 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). At age 52, Powell became the youngest officer, the first African-American, and the first ROTC graduate to hold the highest military position in the Department of Defense.

During his tenure as JCS chairman, Powell orchestrated the U.S. military’s response to several crises, including the forceful removal from power of Panamanian dictator General Manuel Noriega in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. For his tendency to recommend diplomacy before military intervention as a first response to a crisis, Powell became known as “the reluctant warrior.” For his leadership during the Gulf War, Powell was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Post-Military Career

Powell’s tenure as chairman of the JCS continued until he retired from the military on September 30, 1993. Upon his retirement, Powell was awarded a second Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton and named an honorary Knight Commander by England’s Queen Elizabeth II

General Powell Presented With Presidential Medal Of Freedom
American First Lady Barbara Bush (1925 - 2018) fastens the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army General Colin Powell, as US President George HW Bush (1924 - 2018), watches during a ceremony in the White House's East Room, Washington DC, July 3, 1991. Consolidated News Pictures / Getty Images

In September 1994, President Clinton chose Powell to accompany former President Carter to Haiti as a key negotiator in the peaceful return of power to freely-elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the military dictator Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras. In 1997, Powell founded America’s Promise Alliance, a collection of nonprofit, community organizations, businesses, and government organizations dedicated to improving the lives of young people. The same year, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and Service was established within the City College of New York. 

In 2000, Powell considered running in the U.S. presidential election, but decided against doing so after George W. Bush, with the help of Powell’s endorsement at the Republican National Convention, won the nomination. 

Secretary of State

On December 16, 2000, Powell was nominated as secretary of state by President-elect George W. Bush. He was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate and sworn in as the 65th secretary of state on January 20, 2001. 

Secretary Powell played a key role in managing the United States’ relationship with its foreign partners in the global War on Terrorism. Immediately after the September 11 terror attacks, he led the diplomatic effort to garner support from America’s allies in the Afghanistan War

In 2004, Secretary Powell was criticized for his role in building support for the Iraq War. As a career-long moderate, Powell initially opposed a forcible overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, preferring a diplomatically negotiated solution instead. However, he agreed to go along with the Bush administration’s plan to remove Hussein through military force. On February 5, 2003, Powell appeared before the United Nations Security Council to garner support for a multinational invasion of Iraq. Holding a mock vial of anthrax, Powell asserted that Saddam Hussein had—and could rapidly produce more—chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. The claim was later proven to have been based on faulty intelligence.

Colin Powell Address UN Security Council
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 5: The Security Council looks at a video screen during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's address to the UN Security Council February 5, 2003 in New York City. Powell is making a presentation attempting to convince the world that Iraq is deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction. Mario Tama / Getty Images

As a political moderate in a presidential administration noted for its hardline responses to foreign crises, Powell’s influence within the Bush White House began to fade. Shortly after President Bush’s reelection in 2004, he resigned as secretary of state and was succeeded by Dr. Condoleezza Rice in 2005. After leaving the State Department, Powell continued to publicly support the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War.

Post-Retirement Business and Political Activity

Since his retirement from government service, Powell has remained active in both business and politics. In July 2005, he became a “strategic limited partner” in the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. In September 2006, Powell publicly sided with moderate Senate Republicans in criticizing the Bush administration’s policy of withholding the legal rights of suspected terrorist detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.

In 2007, Powell joined the board of directors of Revolution Health, a network of social media portals offering online personal health management tools. In October 2008, he again made political headlines by endorsing Democrat Barack Obama in the presidential election over his fellow Republican John McCain. Similarly, in the 2012 election, Powell backed Obama over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. 

In emails revealed to the press before the 2016 presidential election, Powell expressed highly negative opinions of both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. In criticizing Clinton’s use of a personal email account for conducting government business during her time as secretary of state, Powell wrote that she had not “been covering herself with glory” and should have disclosed her actions “two years ago.” Of Clinton’s candidacy itself, he stated, “I would rather not have to vote for her, although she is a friend I respect.” Powell criticized Donald Trump’s backing of the anti-Barack Obama citizenship “birther” movement, referring to Trump as a “racist” and a “national disgrace.” 

On October 25, 2016, Powell gave his lukewarm endorsement to Clinton “because I think she’s qualified, and the other gentleman is not qualified.” 

Personal Life

While stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, Powell met Alma Vivian Johnson of Birmingham, Alabama. The couple married on August 25, 1962, and have three children—a son Michael, and daughters Linda and Annemarie. Linda Powell is a movie and Broadway actress and Michael Powell was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005.

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "Biography of Colin Powell, Top US General, National Security Advisor." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Biography of Colin Powell, Top US General, National Security Advisor. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Biography of Colin Powell, Top US General, National Security Advisor." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).