10 Facts About Colin Powell: The First Black US Secretary of State | History Hit

10 Facts About Colin Powell: The First Black US Secretary of State

Celeste Neill

19 Oct 2021
Colin Powell, while serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 11 September 1990.
Image Credit: mark reinstein / Shutterstock.com

Colin Powell was a top military officer who became the first black US secretary of state, serving under several Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

After growing up in a Jamaican immigrant family in Harlem, Powell led a celebrated career that saw him rise from modest means up the military ranks. He served as a soldier in the Vietnam War and went on to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Here are 10 facts about General Colin L. Powell.

1. He grew up in Harlem

Colin Luther Powell was born on 5 April 1937, in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants of limited means. He was educated in the New York City public school system and went on to join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps when he was studying to earn a Bachelor of Science in Geology at the City College of New York.

Powell went on to graduate college and became a second lieutenant in the US Army.

2. He served twice in the Vietnam War

In 1962 Powell was stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts where he married Alma Johnson, with whom he went on to have 2 daughters and a son. He was sent by President John F. Kennedy to Vietnam and was awarded a Purple Heart the following year.

He returned to Vietnam in 1968 for a second tour, this time as a battalion executive officer somewhat removed from the fighting. However, he was recognised for bravery when he escaped a helicopter crash but repeatedly returned to the burning wreck to rescue a number of his fellow soldiers.

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3. Powell switched back and forth between civilian and military roles

In 1972 Powell launched his political career when he earned a prestigious White House Fellowship under the Nixon administration. He also served as an executive assistant under the Democratic Carter administration in the Energy and Defense Departments. Later, in 1987, he served as national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan.

4. Powell spent 35 years in the army and rose to the rank of 4-star general

Alongside his political career, Powell continued to rise in the military ranks, serving as Brigadier General in 1979 and major general in 1983, before eventually becoming a 4-star general, the most senior command ranking in the armed services.

In 1989 President George H. W. Bush named Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

5. Powell oversaw major American military missions during the late 20th century

From October 1989 to September 1993 Powell oversaw 28 crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq.

Powell was initially reluctant to commit US troops when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, but became one of the administration’s most trusted spokesmen when the assault on Saddam Hussein’s army came. This successful US campaign in the Middle East received rare public praise: the government’s handling of the conflict was applauded and Powell became something of a national hero, earning a parade in his hometown of New York.

Colin Powell, Mrs. Brenda Schwarzkopf and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during a parade for the men and women who served in Desert Storm, 10 June 1991.

Image Credit: MSgt. Wetterman / Public Domain

6. He became the most decorated black man in United States military history

Powell’s efforts during the Gulf War also earned him further military awards, including a Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During Powell’s time in the military, which lasted until 1993, he also received a number of other notable awards, including the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. In addition to the military awards, Powell also received the President’s Citizens Medal, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal, as well as a second Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.

7. He might have become America’s first black president

In 1995 Powell seriously considered running for president and was seen as a strong Republican presidential candidate, who at the time would have run against Bill Clinton. If successful, he would have become the first black president in the US. But Powell opted out of the presidential race as he felt increasingly out of step with the Republican party.

Instead, he returned to the White House as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, becoming the first black person in US history to fill that role. At the time, Powell said he would help the party in “broadening its appeal” and wanted to find ways during his time in office to heal growing divisions in society.

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8. Powell was accused of misleading the public in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

During a controversial presentation to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003, Powell based the administration’s case for war on the claim that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was an imminent danger to the world because of Iraq’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

Powell later admitted that the presentation was rife with inaccuracies and twisted intelligence provided by others in the Bush administration. He later called his UN speech a “blot” that he regretted would forever be on his record.

9. Powell returned to private life after his political career

He worked as a strategic adviser and speaker and wrote a memoir published in 2012. He also founded the City College of New York’s Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service in 1997.

The City University of New York established the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in 2013 in his honour.

Colin Powell speaking at a seminar in California, 24 February 2009.

Image Credit: Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com

10. In his later years Powell supported Democratic presidential candidates

Though the large majority of Powell’s time as a public servant was spent in Republican administrations, in his later years Powell supported Democratic presidential candidates.

He went on to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 over Donald Trump and again snubbed Trump in 2020 during the President’s second campaign, announcing his support for President Joe Biden. The retired general later delivered an address in support of Biden during the Democratic National Convention.

He died on 18 October 2021 from Covid-19 complications.

Celeste Neill