Colin Powell, a former secretary of state, dies at 84

Oct 18, 2021
Originally published on October 19, 2021 7:12 am

Updated October 18, 2021 at 4:39 PM ET

Colin Powell, who served as secretary of state during the presidency of George W. Bush and led the first Gulf War as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has died at age 84 of complications from COVID-19, his family confirmed.

Powell, the first Black person to serve in both of those senior posts, died Monday morning. The family said that "he was fully vaccinated." His longtime aide, Peggy Cifrino, confirmed to NPR that he had been treated in recent years for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that can suppress the body's immune system, and that he had Parkinson's disease. Powell had also been treated for prostate cancer in 2003.

"We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment," the family said in a Facebook post. "We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American."

It is unclear what the status of Powell's multiple myeloma and his immune system was at the time of his death — or whether the cancer could have made him vulnerable to COVID-19 despite vaccination. Studies have shown patients with multiple myeloma are at higher risk for severe COVID-19.

In a White House statement, President Biden said Powell "believed in the promise of America because he lived it. And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others."

Biden said Powell "embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat."

"From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation's policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong," the president said. "Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people."

Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prepares to testify at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Desert Storm troop deployments in 1990.
Mark Reinstein / Getty Images

The Army helped Powell find his path

Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was born in Harlem and grew up in a working class family in the South Bronx. In the Army, he found a culture where a Black man could find his own path — where race, background and income level didn't define you, he told NPR in 2012.

"People have asked me, 'What would you have done if you hadn't gone into the Army?' I'd say, 'I'd probably be a bus driver, I don't know,'" Powell said.

As a young Army officer, he served as an adviser in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. During that first tour, he believed the U.S. was in Southeast Asia "to save the world from communism," he told C-SPAN in 1995.

But after a second tour in 1968, when the U.S. was at the height of its military involvement in Vietnam, he lost his early optimism.

"We weren't sure how we were going to get out of this war, and we weren't sure that we were prepared to make the investment that would be required to either win or get out with honor," he said.

Vietnam forever informed his approach to foreign policy

He would remember the lessons of Vietnam as he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under then-President George H.W. Bush.

Powell came into the public consciousness during the first Gulf War when he advocated for overwhelming military force against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army, which had invaded Kuwait. His approach in the conflict came to be known as the "Powell doctrine."

He was for years one of the most widely admired Americans. After retiring from the Army, he wrote a memoir and was later tapped by President George W. Bush to serve as secretary of state. Bush described Powell as a "tower of strength and common sense."

In a statement after Powell's death, Bush called him "a great public servant," liked by presidents and "highly respected at home and abroad."

"And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend," he said.

But Powell's defense of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and his presentation at the United Nations of evidence of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist — drew widespread criticism and put a blemish on his reputation.

"It wasn't just me making the case; everybody was making the case," he told NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview in 2011. "Even though my presentation, in many ways, was flawed — there was a lot of correct analysis in that presentation — it was based on a national intelligence estimate that the Congress had asked for and the CIA had provided, which is even more categorical than my subsequent presentation as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction."

With Powell at his side, President George W. Bush meets with members of the National Security Council at Camp David in September 2001.
Eric Draper / Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

Speaking to NPR on Monday, retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark said Powell "always felt bad" about giving that U.N. testimony.

Clark said Powell "was a soldier at heart" and "had a magic with people."

Powell was not a proponent of invading Iraq and did not see eye to eye with either Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. During a meeting in 2002, Powell warned Bush of the consequences of invasion: "You break it, you're going to own it," he reportedly said.

In a 2011 memoir, Cheney said Powell did not always fully brief Bush. Powell responded to the criticism, calling Cheney's remark a "cheap shot."

Even so, Cheney released a statement on Monday saying he was "deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman."

"General Powell had a remarkably distinguished career, and I was fortunate to work with him," Cheney said. "He was a man who loved his country and served her long and well."

He grew disenchanted with the GOP under Donald Trump

Although moderate by today's standards, Powell was a nearly lifelong Republican. He served three GOP presidents, having also served as Ronald Reagan's national security adviser.

But in 2008, he endorsed then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain, citing his concerns about the direction of the Republican Party at the time.

In 2016, he said he would not vote for Donald Trump and later called out the 45th president. "We have a Constitution. We have to follow that Constitution. And the president's drifted away from it," Powell said in 2020 after Trump threatened to use military force against Black Lives Matter protesters.

During the 2020 campaign, Powell said he would vote for Joe Biden, but it wasn't until the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that the former secretary of state finally severed ties with the GOP.

"I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican," he told CNN's Fareed Zakaria. "I'm not a fellow of anything right now. I'm just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career."

"Right now, I'm just watching my country, and not concerned about parties," he said.

Correction: 10/18/21

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Colin Powell grew up in Harlem. Powell was born in Harlem and grew up in the South Bronx.

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

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Colin Powell has died. He served as U.S. secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security adviser. And he was the first Black person to hold each of those positions.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Powell's family says his death was due to complications from COVID-19, though he was fully vaccinated. Deaths in vaccinated people are rare, but they do happen. A spokesperson tells NPR that Powell had been treated in the past for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that compromises the immune system. He also had Parkinson's disease.

SHAPIRO: Colin Powell was 84 years old. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in a working-class family in the Bronx. He leaves behind an enormous legacy, built largely on his role in the first U.S. war with Iraq and complicated by his role in the second. NPR's Don Gonyea has more.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Colin Powell lived a life of groundbreaking accomplishment. Not bad for a man who, in a TED talk, once described his youthful self this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

COLIN POWELL: I was not a great student. I was a public school kid in New York City, and I didn't do well at all - straight C everywhere.

GONYEA: He went to Morris High School in the Bronx, class of '54, then City University of New York. It was there that he discovered his true calling, the military. He joined the school's Reserve Officer Training Program, ROTC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POWELL: And I found my place. I found discipline. I found structure. I found people that were like me and I liked. And I fell in love with the Army that first few months in ROTC, and it lasted for the next 40-odd years.

GONYEA: That's from a conversation with NPR in 2012. Powell says he found in the Army a culture where your race or background or income level didn't define you. You could find a path to success. In the '60s, he did two tours in Vietnam, the first in 1962 when the U.S. was mostly advising the South Vietnamese military.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: We were there to save the world from communism. And if this was where it popped up, by gosh, here's where we're going to do it.

GONYEA: A second tour came in 1968. By then, the U.S. had a half-million troops in Vietnam, and Powell's early optimism was gone. He recalled those days on C-SPAN in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: We were essentially in a war and we weren't sure how we were going to get out of this war. We weren't sure that we were prepared to make the investment that would be required to either win or get out with honor.

GONYEA: After the war, Powell rose through the ranks and vowed to learn from the mistakes of Vietnam and to work to restore Americans' faith in their armed forces. A major test of both came in 1990. Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, a U.S. ally. George H.W. Bush was president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE H W BUSH: There is no justification whatsoever for this outrageous and brutal act of aggression.

GONYEA: By now, Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Operation Desert Storm, as it was called, ended quickly with a decisive victory. And Powell, thanks to daily press briefings, became a household name. The public loved his clear, no-nonsense approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it.

GONYEA: Shortly afterward, Powell retired from the military. He wrote a memoir and was immediately seen as a potential presidential candidate. Ultimately, he decided against seeking office but did declare that he was a Republican. Still, public service beckoned when President elect George W. Bush chose him to be secretary of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: He is a tower of strength and common sense. When you find somebody like that, you have to hang on to them.

GONYEA: Then in that first year in office, the terror attacks of 9/11. The war in Afghanistan followed. Then President Bush started pressing for another war in Iraq. The president said Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, that he was a threat that needed to be removed. Administration hard-liners, including Vice President Dick Cheney, urged swift action. Secretary of State Powell had doubts.

Powell did convince the president to first go to the United Nations to get support. That's when Bush asked him to go make the case himself. Powell first met with U.S. intelligence officials to hear the evidence they had gathered. He then delivered a dramatic presentation to the U.N. in early 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: Here you see 15 munitions bunkers in yellow and red outlines. The four that are in red squares represent active chemical munitions bunkers.

GONYEA: But skeptical allies were not convinced, so the war was launched without U.N. backing. Overwhelming force quickly removed Saddam Hussein from power, but no WMDs were ever found, and the U.S. got bogged down for years. Powell would later look back at his U.N. speech and say he'd been given wrong information by intelligence agencies he'd trusted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: But it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that, I am - I'm disappointed, and I regret it.

GONYEA: Colin Powell's previously stellar reputation was damaged by the war and by that speech. He left the Bush administration after one term. In retirement, Colin Powell spent time at his foundation, working as a mentor for young African Americans. But in 2008 came one more important moment. That's when Powell, a Republican, endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president. This was on NBC's "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

POWELL: He has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure. He is...

GONYEA: It was Powell very publicly rejecting the GOP, but it was also one iconic African American endorsing a younger man trying to break the country's ultimate racial barrier. Throughout his life, Powell was often asked about race in America. In 1994, he spoke to the graduating class at the historically Black Howard University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: I stand here today as a direct descendant of those Buffalo soldiers and of the Tuskegee Airmen and all the Black men and women who have served the nation in uniform, all of whom who served in their time and in their way and with whatever opportunity existed at that time to break down the walls of discrimination and racism, to make the path easier for those of us who came after them.

GONYEA: Colin Powell was never a frontline activist in the American civil rights movement, but his legacy is one of breaking barriers. He worked through institutions, the military, in politics, through philanthropy, seeking to create opportunities for those who would follow him.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.