Powell, who served in the military from the early days of the Vietnam era through America’s first war with Iraq, was the nation’s first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of State.
Upon news of his death, leaders and former colleagues hailed him as a leader and a hero. Former President George W. Bush, whom Powell served as secretary of State, praised him as a “great public servant.”
Powell’s death also triggered reminders of one of the darker moments in his otherwise distinguished career.
After four decades in public service as America’s top soldier, diplomat and national security advisor, Powell’s influence in shaping U.S. diplomacy was later marred by his argument for the Iraq War, which started in 2003. Following America’s entry into lengthy wars in the Middle East, Powell admitted his support for combat in Iraq haunted him.
“It has blotted my record, but – you know – there’s nothing I can do to change that blot,” he said in 2011. “All I can say is that I gave it the best analysis that I could.”
Powell’s family announced his death Monday in a Facebook post.
“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,” the family said, noting he was fully vaccinated.
The family thanked the staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where Powell was receiving care.
He had multiple myeloma, according to NBC News. It is a type of blood cancer that hurts the body’s ability to fight infections.
Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, during the Reagan administration became the first Black national security advisor.
President George H.W. Bush tapped Powell to be the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role, he oversaw America’s Desert Storm operations during the Persian Gulf war.
After 35 years of military service, Powell retired from the U.S. Army as a four-star general in 1993. He was mentioned as a possible candidate for president several times
Bob Pearson | AFP | Getty Images
As the nation’s top diplomat, Powell faced an unprecedented assignment eight months into the job when 19 militants affiliated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked commercial airliners with the purpose of carrying out suicide attacks against targets in the United States.
On the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Powell supported a swift military response against al-Qaeda.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell answers questions during a briefing 12 September 2001 at the State Department in Washington, DC.
Joyce Naltchayan | AFP | Getty Images
Soon thereafter, the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq. As talk of an invasion grew louder, Powell warned Bush in 2002 that “once you break it, you are going to own it,” referring to Iraq.
After being presented with an intelligence assessment that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had amassed a deadly and dangerous arsenal, Powell went to the United Nations to make the American case for war with Iraq. In early 2003, during a 75-minute speech, Powell presented the global community with intelligence that claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and also the ambition to produce more. Much of the information turned out to be incorrect.
Powell would later call the speech a “blot” on his distinguished record. In 2016, he said the speech was a “great intelligence failure.”
Bush honored Powell in a statement Monday.
“Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Colin Powell. He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam,” Bush and former first lady Laura Bush wrote in a statement.
“He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad,” Bush wrote, adding that “many presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was Defense secretary during the first Gulf war, also paid tribute to Powell.
“I’m deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman,” Cheney said in a statement. “General Powell had a remarkably distinguished career, and I was fortunate to work with him. He was a man who loved his country and served her long and well.”