Born Colin Luther Powell in New York to Jamaican immigrants, Gen. Powell rose rapidly through the Army to become the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His climb was helped by a string of jobs as military assistant to high-level government officials and a stint as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Charming, eloquent and skilled at managing, he had a knack for exuding authority while also putting others at ease.
Powell first joined the Reagan administration in 1987 as national security adviser, becoming the first Black individual to serve in the role.
He later transitioned to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, a position he held for four years under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
Gen. Powell was able to claim some victories early on. In his first year as secretary, he won the release from China of the crew of a U.S. surveillance plane that had made an emergency landing after colliding with a Chinese plane over the South China Sea, killing a Chinese pilot. He averted the pullout of U.S. troops from NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, and he facilitated the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without provoking a harsh Russian backlash.
Calls for Powell to wage a presidential bid ramped up ahead of the 1996 election following the U.S.-led coalition’s win in the Gulf War. He ultimately passed on a campaign of his own, concluding that he did not have a “passion” for elected politics.
“Such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear,” Powell told reporters in 1995. “And for me to pretend otherwise would not be honest to myself, it would not be honest to the American people.”
The four-star general reentered the political sphere in 2001, when he was tapped by George W. Bush to serve as secretary of State, breaking another barrier and becoming the first Black American to serve in the role.
He served in the post until 2005.
During Trump’s tumultuous term in office, Gen. Powell became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the president, who threatened and encouraged the use of force against racial-justice activists in 2020. He scorched Trump’s ethics and accused other Republicans of accommodating or acquiescing to the president’s divisiveness out of political self-interest.
“The one word I have to use with respect to what he’s been doing for the last several years is the word I would never have used before, never would have used with any of the four presidents I worked for: He lies,” Gen. Powell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show. “He lies about things, and