Colin Powell

Colin Powell

Commander in chief at Forces Command

Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem in 1937. His parents were Jamaican immigrants who stressed the importance of education and personal achievement. Powell grew up in the South Bronx, where he graduated from high school without having formed any definite ambition or direction in life. He entered the City College of New York to study geology and it was there, by his own account, that he found his calling when he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). He became commander of his unit's precision drill team and graduated in 1958 at the top of his ROTC class, with the rank of cadet colonel, the highest rank in the corps.

Powell was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army, and was one of the 16,000 military advisors dispatched to South Vietnam by President Kennedy in 1962. In 1963, Lieutenant Powell was wounded by a punji-stick booby trap while patrolling the Vietnamese border with Laos. He was awarded the Purple Heart, and later that year, the Bronze Star. Powell served a second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968-69. During this second tour he was injured in a helicopter crash. Despite his own injuries, he managed to rescue his comrades from the burning helicopter and was awarded the Soldier's Medal. In all, he has received 11 military decorations, including the Legion of Merit.

Powell earned an MBA at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and after being promoted to major, won a White House fellowship. Powell was assigned to the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President Nixon, and here he made a lasting impression on the Director and Deputy Director of the Office: Casper Weinberger and Frank Carlucci. Both of these men were to call on Powell when they served as Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor, respectively, under President Ronald Reagan.

Powell, now a Colonel, followed his term as White House Fellow with service as a battalion commander in Korea and with a staff job at the Pentagon. After study at the Army War College, he was promoted to Brigadier General and commanded a Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. In the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Powell was an assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and to the Secretary of Energy. He was promoted to Major General. He again assisted Frank Carlucci at the Defense Department during the transition from the administration of President Carter to that of President Ronald Reagan.

Powell served as assistant commander and deputy commander of infantry divisions in Colorado and Kansas before returning to Washington to become senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, whom he assisted during the invasion of Grenada and the air strikes against Libya. Powell was called upon to testify before Congress in private session about the covert shipment of American arms to Iran; he was one of only five persons in the Pentagon who knew about the operation. Powell was not implicated in any wrongdoing in the matter.

In 1986, Powell left Washington to serve as commander of the Fifth Corps in Frankfurt, Germany, but was recalled to Washington to serve as deputy to Frank Carlucci, now the National Security Advisor. A year later, Carlucci was appointed Secretary of Defense and Powell, now a Lieutenant General, assumed Carlucci's former post. As National Security Advisor, he coordinated technical and policy staff during President Reagan's summit meetings with Soviet President Gorbachev. He was the first African American to serve in this position, as he has been in every office he has held since.

In 1991, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, Powell became a national figure during the successful Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations which expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait. General Powell continued as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the first months of the Clinton administration, publicly disagreeing with President Clinton over the President's plan to permit gay men and women to serve in the military, although he eventually accepted a compromise on the issue. Powell retired from the military shortly thereafter and returned to private life. In 1994, Powell joined former President Carter and Senator Sam Nunn on a last-minute peace-making expedition to Haiti, which resulted in the end of military rule and the peaceful return to power of the elected government of that country.

In his years of military service, General Powell never disclosed his political sympathies; he was registered to vote as an independent. Although he was known to have supported the 1964 campaign of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, he had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. In the 1990s, the General's great popularity led many people to urge him to run for President. In 1995 he announced that he had registered as a Republican, and he received a thunderous ovation when he spoke at the Republican convention the following year. Although he did not forswear future political involvement, he has declined to seek elective office. In 1997, he returned to his alma mater, the City College of New York, to open the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, offering high-achieving CCNY students the opportunity to prepare for careers in policy and public service. For the rest of the decade, he continued his work with young people as Chairman of America's Promise: the Alliance for Youth.

In 2001, newly elected President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell to be Secretary of State. At the time, it was the highest rank ever held by an African American in the United States government. In his first months in office, Powell won praise for his efficient administration of the State Department, and cordial relations with other governments. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Secretary Powell took a leading role in rallying America's allies for military action in Afghanistan.

It was reported that Powell had serious misgivings about President Bush's subsequent plan to invade Iraq and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, Powell appeared before the Security Council of the United Nations, where he presented evidence purporting to prove that Iraq had concealed concealing an ongoing weapons development program, in violation of UN resolutions. Powell's testimony was instrumental in persuading many members of the U.S. Congress to support military action against Iraq. Some of this evidence was later discredited, and when American forces found no evidence of a weapons program in Iraq, Secretary Powell was subjected to harsh criticism. Shortly after President Bush's re-election in 2004, Powell stepped down as Secretary of State.

Although he maintained a low public profile after his resignation, Powell at times offered nuanced criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq. He declined to endorse any Republican candidate for President in 2008. In October, just weeks before the election, he announced his support for the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama.

Colin Powell
Landon Lecture
Nov. 8, 1989