NPR
The Picture Show

PHOTOS: Colin Powell's life in public service

1047048922_1258209670.jpg

Gen. Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tours the bombed courtyard of the Panamanian Defense Force Comandancia in Panama City during the U.S. invasion of Panama on Jan. 5, 1990.
Bob Pearson, AFP via Getty Images

Gen. Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tours the bombed courtyard of the Panamanian Defense Force Comandancia in Panama City during the U.S. invasion of Panama on Jan. 5, 1990.

Updated October 18, 2021 at 5:02 PM ET

Colin Powell has died at the age of 84 from COVID-19 complications, according to his family. He had also been treated in recent years for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and had Parkinson's disease.

Powell spent much of his life in the military and served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations — notably leading Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and serving as secretary of state from 2001 to 2005.

He was the first African American to serve in either of the two positions.

Powell was born in Harlem as the son of two Jamaican immigrants and was raised in the South Bronx. He attended The City College of New York and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) during his time there. He received a commission as a second lieutenant after graduating in 1958, and stayed with the Army for 35 years. He rose through the ranks, becoming a 4-star general.

Powell became national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan from 1987 through 1989, helping to negotiate arms treaties with the Soviet Union. He was the first Black person to hold that position.

Support comes from

Powell went on to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, leading U.S. forces in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.

He developed what would be known as the "Powell Doctrine" during that time — that U.S. military action should be a last resort if there is a clear risk to national security, there should be strong public support for it and there should be an exit strategy from the conflict where there is military action.

He retired from his military duties in late 1993, but would once again be present in a Republican White House when George W. Bush nominated Powell to be secretary of state.

One of his most memorable public speeches came on Feb. 5, 2003, when he gave a lengthy presentation to the United Nations detailing evidence of weapons of mass destruction said to be under the control of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

As he later acknowledged, that evidence was "flawed."

Powell left the George W. Bush administration in 2005.

Though he was a longtime Republican and had served three Republican presidents, Powell endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election, "because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America." Powell again endorsed Obama in 2012.

He said he would not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 and said he voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Powell said he no longer identified with the party after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

When he was asked in 2013 to reflect on his life, he said he was "blessed."

"I've had the chance to serve my country, and I've had the chance to do things that benefited my country," Powell said. "And when it's all over I just hope they say he was a good soldier, he did a good job, raised a good family, and God bless him. That's all I ask for."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.