Colin Powell, First Black Secretary of State, Dies of Covid-19 at 84

The decorated general broke racial barriers in the U.S. military but attracted criticism for his part in paving the way for the Iraq War

A close up of a painted portrait of Powell, a Black man with gray hair, glasses in green military garb
Detail of Ronald N. Sherr's General Colin Powell, 2012, oil on canvas National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Supported by a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and by the Marc Pachter Commissioning Fund

Colin L. Powell, the American statesman and soldier whose legacy of public service was marred by his role in launching the Iraq War, died of complications from Covid-19 on Monday.

Powell’s family announced his death on Facebook, adding that the 84-year-old was fully vaccinated but contracted a breakthrough case of the virus. His immune system had been weakened by treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the body’s plasma cells, report Robert Burns, Eric Tucker and Eileen Putman for the Associated Press (AP).

“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” said President Joe Biden in a White House statement that described Powell as a “dear friend” and “trusted confidant.”

A full length portrait of Powell, standing in green military garb and black shoes, hands folded in front of him and looking at the viewer
Powell died on October 18, 2021, of complications from Covid-19. He was 84. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Supported by a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and by the Marc Pachter Commissioning Fund

A decorated general and persuasive diplomat, Powell was the first Black American to hold the positions of national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. After the 9/11 attacks, he helped pave the way for the United States’ invasion of Iraq—a role that he came to view as a source of “lifelong regret,” writes Eric Schmitt for the New York Times.

On February 5, 2003, Powell, then serving as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, made an influential speech to the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, drawing on embellished and misleading reports from the CIA. Despite his own reservations about the possible costs of war, Powell claimed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat to the U.S.

“What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” Powell said.

In reality, many of the general’s own employees had previously flagged claims in the speech as “weak,” “not credible” or “highly questionable,” per CIA employees had also failed to communicate a number of serious concerns to Powell, allowing his speech to go forward on the assumption that other U.S. leaders were intent on invading Iraq no matter what, as Robert Draper reported for the New York Times magazine last year.

Powell’s comments nevertheless galvanized many Americans to support the invasion, which took place just six weeks later. The Iraq War lasted until 2011, and its aftershocks continue to wreak havoc on the Middle Eastern country and its people today: According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, direct violence stemming from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has killed between 184,382 and 207,156 Iraqi civilians to date. U.S.-led violence also displaced millions of refugees and damaged systems that provide food, healthcare and drinking water, meaning that the actual death toll may surpass one million Iraqis.

Powell would later admit regret for throwing his substantial political capital behind the conflict. The U.N. speech “was by no means my first, but it was one of my most momentous failures, the one with the widest-ranging impact,” the politician wrote in his 2012 memoir, It Worked for Me.

He added, “The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary.”

Great Americans - Colin Powell, "Black and White in the '60s South"

For some onlookers, Powell’s involvement in the Iraq War severely damaged the general’s positive reputation as a political moderate, a skilled architect of war and a leader of “unassailable credibility,” per the New York Times magazine.

Born on April 5, 1937, to Jamaican immigrant parents, Powell grew up in the South Bronx and attended City College, where he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). He spent two tours in Vietnam during his 35-year career as a professional soldier.

The decorated veteran eventually rose to the highest echelons of the military, breaking racial barriers as the first Black man to hold numerous prestigious government titles. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell guided the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and the U.S. invasion of Kuwait during the Gulf War of 1990 and 1991. He famously summed up his approach to the Gulf War as such: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple. First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

Powell was known for stating that the U.S. should only engage in military intervention when it has “precise goals and clear public support,” the Washington Post reported in 2001. This philosophy came to be labeled the Powell Doctrine.

Speaking with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a 2016 oral history interview, Powell described himself as a “reluctant general.” He said his namesake doctrine contends that leaders should “try to solve [conflict] politically and diplomatically. But if war is necessary, if you’ve got to go to war, then man, do it and do it fast. Do it with decisive force.”

Most importantly, Powell added, “The Powell Doctrine simply says, ‘Make sure you know what you’re getting into.’”

Powell's official portrait as secretary of state
Powell's official portrait as secretary of state Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

By the time of his retirement from the military in 1993, Powell’s gift for public speaking had made him “the most popular public figure in America,” according to the Times. He debated running for president or vice president as a Republican, and at one point was considered the “leading contender” to become the first Black U.S. president, writes Devan Cole for CNN.

Though he eventually decided against a political run, Powell would later surprise many by supporting Democrat Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign.

“I think we need a generational change,” Powell said at the time.

After the September 11 attacks, Powell worked (and often disagreed) with hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as the leaders shaped U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Brown University estimates that this so-called “War on Terror,” including related violence in Pakistan and Syria, has killed more than 900,000 and displaced more than 38 million to date.

In 1997, Powell served as founding chair of America’s Promise, a nonprofit organization benefitting at-risk children across the country. He was also a founding donor and council member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened its doors in 2016. That same year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History awarded Powell its “Great Americans” medal in recognition of his “lifetime contributions that embody American ideals and ideas.”

Last month, the statesman helped NMAAHC celebrate its five-year anniversary.

“[Powell] was always personable and welcoming, and we remain inspired by his achievements, brilliance and dedication to the future of this country,” writes NMAAHC’s director, Kevin Young, on Twitter. “Our thoughts go out to his family and loved ones.”

A portrait of the late Colin L. Powell (1937–2021) by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders will be displayed on the first floor of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in memory of the diplomat, statesman and military officer.

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