(CNN)Colin Powell, the first Black US secretary of state whose leadership in several Republican administrations helped shape American foreign policy in the last years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, has died from complications from Covid-19, his family said on Facebook. He was 84.
“General Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passed away this morning due to complications from Covid 19,” the Powell family wrote on Facebook.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” they said, noting he was fully vaccinated.
combat duty in Vietnam to becoming the first Black national security adviser during the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the youngest and first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush. His national popularity soared in the aftermath of the US-led coalition victory during the Gulf War, and for a time in the mid-90s, he was considered a leading contender to become the first Black President of the United States. But his reputation would be forever stained when, as George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, he pushed faulty intelligence before the United Nations to advocate for the Iraq War, which he would later call a “blot” on his record.
Though he never mounted a White House bid, when Powell was sworn in as Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, he became the highest-ranking Black public official to date in the country, standing fourth in the presidential line of succession.
“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country,” Powell said of his history-making nomination during his Senate confirmation hearing. “It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”
Later in his public life, he would grow disillusioned with the Republican Party’s rightward lurch and would use his political capital to help elect Democrats to the White House, most notably Barack Obama, the first Black president whom Powell endorsed in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign.
The announcement was seen as a significant boost for Obama’s candidacy due to Powell’s widespread popular appeal and stature as one of the most prominent and successful Black Americans in public life.
Powell is survived by his wife, Alma Vivian (Johnson) Powell, whom he married in 1962, as well as three children.
Colin Luther Powell was born April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants. After growing up in the South Bronx, Powell attended school at the City College of New York, where he participated in ROTC, leading the precision drill team and attaining the top rank offered by the corps, cadet colonel.
“I liked the structure and the discipline of the military,” Powell said, according to a CNN profile of him in the early 2000s. “I felt somewhat distinctive wearing a uniform. I hadn’t been distinctive in much else.”
He entered the US Army after graduating in 1958, and later served two tours in South Vietnam during the 1960s, where he was wounded twice, including during a helicopter crash in which he rescued two soldiers. He stayed in the Army after returning home, attending the National War College and rising in leadership. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, appointed as Reagan’s final national security adviser in 1987 and was tapped by the elder Bush in 1989 to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Powell’s tenure in the elder Bush’s administration was marked by his involvement in some of the most notable American military actions of the late 20th century, including the 1989 Panama operation, the 1991 Gulf War and the US humanitarian intervention in Somalia, though he retired from the Army days before the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu.
Although Powell was initially reluctant to commit US troops when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he became one of the administration’s most trusted spokesmen when the assault on Saddam Hussein’s army finally came.
“First we’re going to cut it off. Then we’re going to kill it,” Powell famously said at a news conference at the time, referring to the Iraqi army.
Following the assault, Powell became something of a national hero, enjoying a 71% favorability rating in the first few year years after the war. His efforts during the war also earned him two prominent awards: a Congressional Gold Medal in March 1991 “in recognition of his exemplary performance in planning and coordinating” the US response to Iraq’s invasion, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As the elder Bush presented Powell with the award at a White House ceremony in 1991, he said the general’s “deep compassion for every one of the thousands of men and women under (his) command will always be remembered.”
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. He received his fourth star in 1989, becoming the second African American to rise to that rank.
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, awarded with distinction, from President Bill Clinton.