Colin Powell life and biography

Colin Powell picture, image, poster

Colin Powell biography

Date of birth : 1937-04-05
Date of death : -
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-07-10
Credited as : Military leader and official government, U.S. army general,

25 votes so far

Colin Powell, also known as Colin Luther Powell, born April 5, 1937 in New York, New York, United States is an African-American government official and military leader.

U.S. Army General Colin Powell achieved international prominence in 1990 and 1991, when as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell was one of the key leaders of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the military campaigns to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait from Iraqi control. During the Persian Gulf War, Powell was credited with skillfully balancing the political objectives of President George Bush and the strategy needs of General Norman Schwarzkopf and other military commanders in the field. After the war in the Gulf, Powell was considered for the vice-presidency or even the presidency, but he resisted suggestions that he should run for America's highest office. However, he did accept President-elect George W. Bush's request that he take on the position of secretary of state; in January of 2001, Powell became the first African-American secretary of state in U.S. history.

Powell, however, lacked real power in the White House. His defining moment as secretary of state came in February of 2003, when he put his reputation on the line in a speech before the United Nations Security Council. In that speech, he justified invading Iraq through his assertion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent danger. That intelligence was later discredited, and Powell remained angry with the Bush administration even after he stepped down in November of 2004. In subsequent years he distanced himself from the White House; the final break came in October of 2008 when he endorsed Democratic Senator Barack Obama for president.

Colin Luther Powell was born in 1937 in Harlem, the son of Jamaican immigrants who both worked in New York City's garment district. The young Powell grew up in the South Bronx, where he enjoyed a secure childhood, looked after by a closely-knit family and a multiethnic community. He graduated from Morris High School in 1954 and received a bachelor's degree in geology from the City College of New York in 1958. He was undistinguished as a student, but he excelled in the college's Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC), leading the precision drill team and attaining the top rank offered by the corps--cadet colonel. He was not West Point trained, but his achievements in the ROTC won him a commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Served in Vietnam

His first assignment was at the Fulda Gap in West Germany, where American and allied troops stood as an obstacle on the Soviet Union's most likely invasion route of Western Europe. During the 1960s, Powell served two tours of duty in South Vietnam. He was wounded in 1963 when he fell victim to a Vietcong booby trap while working as an adviser to South Vietnamese troops. His second tour, from 1968 to 1969, as an Army Infantry officer, also ended in injury, this time received in a helicopter crash from which he rescued two of his fellow soldiers. For his valor in Vietnam, he received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Soldier's Medal, and the Legion of Merit.

Back on the home front, Powell pursued a master's degree at George Washington University. After completing his graduate studies in 1971, he was awarded a prestigious White House fellowship, which gave him the opportunity to get his first taste of politics. From 1972 to 1973, he worked for Frank Carlucci, then-deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Caspar Weinberger. It was the beginning of Powell's education in the dynamics of the Washington bureaucracy.

From 1979 to 1981, Powell served in the administration of President Jimmy Carter as an executive assistant to Charles Duncan Jr., the secretary of energy, and as senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense. When the Reagan administration came to Washington, Powell worked with Carlucci on the Defense Department's transition team, and then from 1983 to 1986 he joined Weinberger again, this time as military assistant to the defense secretary. While there, Powell contributed to the department's involvement in the invasion of Grenada and the bombing raid on Libya.

Between political appointments, Powell continued to advance his military career. In 1973 he traveled to South Korea to take command of a battalion and then a year later he returned to Washington as a staff officer at the Pentagon. He completed his military education at the National War College in 1976 and took command of the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, that same year. During the 1980s he held posts as the assistant commander of the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, and as the deputy director at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was in West Germany again in 1987, this time as commanding general of the Fifth Corps in Frankfurt, when he was called back to Washington to work again with Carlucci, the new national security adviser.

Began Working for National Security Council

Carlucci had been chosen to head the troubled National Security Council (NSC) in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal, in which members of the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran in an attempt to secure the release of American hostages; money from the transactions was filtered covertly to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. Together Carlucci and Powell reorganized the NSC to reduce the possibility of such freelance foreign policy. When in 1987 Carlucci took over as secretary of defense for the departing Weinberger, Powell was called upon to take over leadership of the NSC. The move earned widespread approval in Washington because, as Fred Barnes wrote in the New Republic, Powell is "a national security adviser strong enough to settle policy disputes but without a personal agenda."

During his tenure at the NSC, Powell did speak out on a number of issues he thought were important to national security, including economic strength, control of technology exchanges, protection of the environment, a stable defense budget, free trade and foreign investment, research and development, and education. He also expressed his opposition to plans for the overthrow of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and to heavy spending on the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"). Even so, as he told Barnes, "I'm principally a broker. I have strong views on things, but my job is to make sure the president gets the best information available to make an informed decision."

In 1989 President George H. W. Bush named Powell to the military's top post--chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the youngest man and first African American to hold that position. In peacetime, the chairman's responsibilities included overseeing the prioritization of Pentagon spending and keeping the channels of communication open between the military and the White House. They also included drawing up plans for military action, first in Panama and then in the Middle East.

Influenced Policy during Gulf War

Because of a 1986 law redefining the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had more influence than any chairman since World War II. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, obliged Powell to exercise that authority. The day after the invasion, Powell advised the president that a number of options were open, including economic and diplomatic sanctions, as well as the use of military force. The Bush administration responded with Operation Desert Shield, a massive movement of troops and supplies to Saudi Arabia that was initiated as a show of force and to serve as a deterrent to further Iraqi aggression. After touring the Middle East, Powell recommended increasing the number of troops to assure the success of a strategy to isolate and destroy Iraq if it proved necessary. He told U.S. News and World Report: "You go in to win, and you go in to win decisively."

In the early stages of the operation, Powell again demonstrated his ability to manage people and bureaucracies. As European and Middle Eastern troops joined in a coalition against Iraq, Powell directed the quick integration of communications, operations, and authority into a command network under the direction of Schwarzkopf. During the planning of the air and land campaigns, Powell aided the president in making decisions and kept him informed of military plans, but he also convinced the Washington warriors to leave the commanders in Saudi Arabia the space needed to carry out their missions. President Bush responded to the February 21, 1991, Iraqi peace proposal with an ultimatum: the Iraqis must pull out of Kuwait by noon Washington time, February 23. When the deadline passed, the coalition began its land campaign later that night as scheduled.

Operation Desert Storm was a success, and Powell was hurled into the spotlight of media and public attention. He found himself the target of public scrutiny and criticism. Some African-American leaders labeled him a servant of the white establishment, and peace activists considered him a trigger-happy hawk. Such criticisms, however, were tempered by praise of him as a positive role model for young African Americans and as a committed defender of liberty.

Because of his leadership during the war and his experience as an insider in the Washington bureaucracy, Powell was suggested by political analysts as a promising candidate for future political office. However, Powell shied away from such notions. Instead, he requested a second tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bruce B. Auster reported in U.S. News and World Report: "Powell is able to transfer his unquestioned personal integrity to the institution he leads in part because, while he wields more power than almost any of his Pentagon predecessors, he is not addicted to it."

Engaged in Philanthropic Work

After his retirement from the Army and from his position as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, Powell shied away from politics and pressure to run for high office, saying it was "a calling that I do not yet hear." Instead, he directed his energies toward helping America's youth. In 1997 Powell, along with Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford, attended the President's Summit for America's Future. The Summit, which took place in Philadelphia, called upon Americans to make youth a national priority and challenged citizens to dedicate their time to volunteer efforts that would improve the lives of America's fifteen million impoverished children.

Inspired by the Summit, Powell founded America's Promise Alliance, an organization that acts to mobilize the nation to provide children with five fundamental resources, or Five Promises. These Five Promises, according to the America's Promise Web site include: "ongoing relationships with caring adults--parents, mentors, tutors, or coaches; safe places with structured activities during nonschool hours; healthy start and future; marketable skills through effective education; and opportunities to give back through community service."

Powell also launched the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York in 1997 in order to educate, in his words, "a new generation of American leaders who reflect the broad mosaic that is our country's strength." The Center combines policy-related research and events with programs focused on direct student engagement in order to develop leadership among underrepresented groups. Scholarship programs at the Center support outstanding students and provide them with opportunities to take part in internships and service opportunities and in one or more of the Center's research initiatives. Service-learning initiatives are designed as part of the curriculum in order to "enable students to apply classroom lessons in practical settings." In 2006 the Powell Center received a $10 million endowment in order to support students who demonstrate an interest in public policy who come from underrepresented populations. The endowment supported thirteen fellows and scholars in 2007-08 and again in 2008-09.

Served as Secretary of State

In 2000, after nearly seven years out of the political arena, Powell was called upon by President George W. Bush to join his Cabinet as secretary of state. Powell agreed, and became the first African American ever to hold the office. Powell settled into his new job quickly. When Powell reported to work, State Department employees lined up just to shake hands with him. Some of them even wept for joy when they met the new secretary.

Although Powell remained popular within the State Department, the high esteem in which he was held by much of the rest of the country soon began to fade. Powell was in an uncomfortable position in Bush's administration. He was nearly the only firm believer in the power of diplomacy and the inadvisability of using military force to solve international problems. The rest of the administration, particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were hawks by nature and became even more so after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His power and influence was frequently undercut by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld; he was often purposefully cut out of major foreign policy decisions. The largest divisions between Powell and the rest of the administration were seen on the issue of Iraq. Powell questioned the value of forcibly removing banned weapons from Iraq through an invasion.

However, it was his duty to work to advance the Bush administration's policies. Although some suggested that Powell should resign, he refused to do so, saying that he had made a commitment and had to fulfill it. He presented the government's case for war to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, saying "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." He went on to state that Iraq possessed chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons and posed an imminent threat to the United States. The speech not only sold the invasion to the international community, but to the people of the United States; the next day, the majority of polled Americans said they believed an invasion was justified.

However, after the Iraqi invasion and within a year of Powell's speech, it became clear that Iraq did not possess chemical or biological weapons--a fact which seriously undermined Powell's credibility. In May of 2004, Powell stated on Meet the Press that he believed that the Central Intelligence Agency had been deliberately misled about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and admitted that he regretted his assertion in his United Nations speech that Iraq possessed mobile biological laboratories.

Broke with the Bush Administration

Powell stepped down as secretary of state only days after Bush's reelection in November of 2004. The Washington Post reported that he had been asked to resign by the Bush administration, although Powell maintained he had always intended to serve for one term only. The New York Times reported that after his retirement Powell remained angry that his credibility had been undermined when the weapons of mass destruction he had used to make the case for war turned out not to exist.

Powell's retirement to the private sector was not an idle one. He kept active with a variety of projects, from the serious to the whimsical. Among these were maintaining a busy public speaking schedule, continuing his charitable work with America's Promise, becoming a strategic limited partner with a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and driving the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 auto race in 2005. Nor was Powell's new life without accolades--his 1995 memoir, My American Journey, won the 2005 Alexis de Tocqueville Prize.

Powell also continued to distance himself from the Bush administration. In 2007 he revealed at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado that he had tried to persuade President Bush to not invade Iraq. He also stated that he believed that the ongoing violence in Iraq could not be solved by U.S. troops. He told reporters, "It is not a civil war that can be put down or solved by the armed forces of the United States."

Endorsed Barack Obama in 2008

In 2008 Powell made headlines when the Republican endorsed Democratic Senator Barack Obama in the presidential race. Elisabeth Bumller of the New York Times wrote that the endorsement "represented his own transformative moment in a lifelong journey through war and politics" that was "not only an embrace of a presidential candidate from the other party, but also an effort to reshape a legacy that he himself considers tainted by his service under President Bush." Powell explained that he had become disaffected from the Republican Party, which had become too conservative under the Bush administration, and that he felt that the election of Senator John McCain would not improve the country's reputation around the world.

Powell's endorsement of Obama was a firm break with his past service in the Bush administration and his appearance before the United Nations Security Council in February of 2003 when he made the case for war in Iraq. In many ways, it was evidence of Powell's commitment, exhibited throughout his career, to securing a world where democratic values could flourish. Upon Obama's election, Powell told Katie Couric of CBS News, "I am deeply pleased it happened in my lifetime.... It has really, really been a remarkable event in terms of getting everybody to stand back and say, look at what we have seen here in America. The America we remember is back again."


Born Colin Luther Powell on April 5, 1937, in New York, NY; son of Luther (a shipping clerk) and Maud Arlel (a seamstress) Powell; married Alma Vivian Johnson (a speech pathologist), August 25, 1962; children: Michael, Linda, Annemarie. Military service: U.S. Army, 1958-93; achieved rank of four-star general. Politics: Republican. Religion: Episcopalian. Education: City College of the City University of New York, BS, 1958; George Washington University, MBA, 1971; National War College, 1976. Addresses: Home--Fort Myers, VA.


Purple Heart, 1963, Bronze Star, 1963, Legion of Merit, 1972; Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1991; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1993; Alexis de Tocqueville Prize, 2005, for My American Journey.


U.S. Army officer, 1958-93, including: commissioned second lieutenant, 1958; served in South Vietnam, as a military adviser, 1962-63, as a battalion executive officer and division operations officer, 1968-69; commander of the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, 1976-77; assistant commander Fourth Infantry Division, 1981-83; commanding general of the Fifth Corps, Frankfurt, West Germany, 1986-87; commander-in-chief of the U.S. Forces Command, 1989; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1989-93. Assistant to the deputy director, Office of Management and Budget, 1972-73; senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, 1979-81; military assistant to the secretary of defense, 1983-86; assistant to the president, National Security Affairs, 1987-89; secretary of state, 2001-05.

Selected works

* Books

* (Edited by Lisa Shaw) In His Own Words: Colin Powell, Berkley Group, 1995.
* (With Joseph E. Persico) My American Journey (autobiography), Random House, 1995.

Read more

Please read our privacy policy. Page generated in 0.095s