November 2021

Colin Powell, Soldier and Statesperson


Colin Powell had a long and distinguished military and political career.

On October 18, 2021, our country lost one of its finest leaders. Colin Powell was the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was also the first African American to serve as secretary of state. Over his long career, he served 6 different American presidents.

Colin Luther Powell was born in New York, New York, on April 5, 1937. He grew up in the Harlem and South Bronx neighborhoods of New York City. In 1954, he graduated from high school. He then attended the City College of New York, studying geology.

After college, Powell joined the United States Army. One of his first military posts would be at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. While there, he met his wife—Alma. Alma and Colin were married for almost 60 years. Together they raised three children—Michael, Linda, and Annemarie.

During the Vietnam War, Powell served with distinction. His skill as a soldier and leader began to show. By the war’s end, he had earned several military honors, including the Bronze Star for bravery. After the war, Powell remained in the Army and continued to rise through the ranks. Powell was promoted to general in 1976.

At about this time he also began serving in various jobs in the U.S. government. As he had in the Army, Powell impressed government officials with his intelligence, skill, and bravery as a leader. He soon began to rise through the ranks of the U.S. government, as well. He worked for both President Richard Nixon and President Jimmy Carter. Then, in 1987, Powell became the national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Powell to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This made Powel the highest-ranking officer in the United States Military. Powell became the first African American to hold this prestigious post. He would play a leading role in planning for the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

After a long and successful career, Powell retired from the military in 1993. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell as his secretary of state. This marked another first for our country and for Powell. He was the first African American to serve as secretary of state. The secretary of state is one of the highest positions in the executive branch of government.

As secretary of state, Colin Powell made one of the few missteps of his career. In the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003 he presented information that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. It later turned out that this information was wrong. Powell’s reputation suffered. He resigned as secretary of state in 2004. He later said that he regretted his part in presenting what turned out to be false information.

In addition to politics, Powell focused much of his energy later in life on supporting the success of America’s youth. As the founding chairperson of America’s Promise, Powell was dedicated to a new mission. He worked to ensure that all American children had equal access to the conditions that promote success—caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others. Alma Powell now leads America’s Promise to carry on her husband’s work.

Image credit: ©Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Question 1
Colin Powell was the first African American to serve in which U.S. government post?

Question 2
Colin Powell played a lead role in planning for which war?

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