Colin L. Powell, who in four decades of public life served as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat and national security adviser, and whose speech at the United Nations in 2003 helped pave the way for the United States to go to war in Iraq, died on Monday. He was 84.
He died of complications of Covid-19, his family said in a statement. He had been fully vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his family said.
Mr. Powell was a path breaker serving as the country’s first African American national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state.
Born in Harlem of Jamaican parents, Mr. Powell grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from City College of New York, joining the Army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. From a young second lieutenant commissioned in the dawn of a newly desegregated Army, Mr. Powell served two decorated combat tours in Vietnam. He later later national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan at the end of the Cold War, helping to negotiate arms treaties and an era of cooperation with the Soviet president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was the architect of the invasion of Panama in 1989 and of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, which ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq. Along with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Mr. Powell reshaped the American Cold War military that stood ready at the Iron Curtain for half a century. In doing so he stamped the Powell Doctrine on military operations — armed with clear political objectives and public support, use decisive and overwhelming force to defeat enemy forces.
When briefing reporters at the Pentagon at the beginning of the gulf war, Mr. Powell succinctly summed up the military’s strategy to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple,” he said. “First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”
It was a concept that seemed less suited to the messy conflicts in the Balkans that came later in the 1990s and in combating terrorism in a world transformed after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
By the time he retired from the military in 1993, Mr. Powell was one of the most popular public figures in America.In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, he analyzed himself: “Powell is a problem-solver. He was taught as a soldier to solve problems. So he has views, but he’s not an ideologue. He has passion, but he’s not a fanatic. He’s first and foremost a problem-solver.”
Once retired, Mr. Powell, a lifelong independent while in uniform, was courted as a presidential contender by Republicans and Democrats, and became America’s most political general since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He wrote a best-selling memoir, “My American Journey,” and flirted with a run for the presidency before deciding in 1995 that campaigning for office wasn’t for him.
He returned to public service in 2001 as secretary of state to President George W. Bush, whose father Mr. Powell had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs a decade earlier.
But in the Bush administration, Mr. Powell was the odd man out, fighting internally with Mr. Cheney, then vice president, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the ear of President Bush and foreign policy dominance.
He left at the end of Mr. Bush’s first term under the cloud of an ever-worsening war in Iraq, and growing questions about whether he could have and should have done more to object to it.
He kept a lower profile for the next few years, but with just over two weeks left in the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Powell, by then a declared Republican, gave a forceful endorsement to Senator Barack Obama, calling him a “transformational figure.”
Mr. Powell’s backing drew sharp criticism from conservative Republicans. But it eased the doubts among some independents, moderates and even some in his own party, and allayed some voters’ concerns about Mr. Obama’s lack of experience to be commander in chief.
Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem and reared in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. His parents, Luther Powell, a shipping-room foreman in Manhattan’s garment district, and mother, Maud Ariel McKoy, a seamstress, were immigrants from Jamaica.
The young Mr. Powell graduated from Morris High School in the Bronx. By his own account, he was a mediocre student, carrying a C average at City College of New York, majoring in geology.
An early turning point came when he enrolled in the college’s R.O.T.C. program, drawn by the camaraderie, discipline and well defined goals. He joined the Pershing Rifles, a drill team started by Gen. John J. Pershing, a top American commander in World War I. Even after becoming a general, Mr. Powell kept on his desk a pen set he had won for a drill-team competition decades earlier.
During a summer R.O.T.C. training tour in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1957, Mr. Powell got his first taste of racism as he was forced to use segregated washrooms at gas stations in the Deep South on the drive home to New York. After graduating from City College in June 1958, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, the start of a 35-year military career.
A full obituary will follow.
Daniel Victor contributed reporting.