Colin Powell, who climbed the ranks, while breaking color barriers, to become the nation’s top military official and later served as secretary of state, died Monday morning from complications related to COVID-19, his family said in a Facebook post. He was 84.
What You Need To Know
- Former Secretary of State Colin Powell died Monday morning from complications related to COVID-19, his family said; he was 84
- The statement said Powell was treated at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and that he was fully vaccinated
- Peggy Cifrino, Powell’s longtime aide, said he had been treated over the past few years for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer
- Powell served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush from 2001-05, and in 2003 gave a presentation to the U.N. Security Council making the case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” his family wrote.
The statement said Powell was treated at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and that he was fully vaccinated.
Peggy Cifrino, Powell’s longtime aide, said he had been treated over the past few years for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. The Powell family’s social media post did not address whether Powell had any underlying illnesses.
Multiple myeloma impairs the body’s ability to fight infection, and studies have shown that those cancer patients don’t get as much protection from the COVID-19 vaccines as healthier people.
A New York City native, Powell was an Army veteran who rose to the rank of four-star general and later served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was also, while still in the military, national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1987-89. Powell served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush from 2001-05.
He was the first Black national security adviser, Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state.
As secretary of state in 2003, Powell gave a presentation to the United Nations Security Council making the case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq by saying the Middle Eastern country had a program for developing weapons of mass destruction, an assessment that turned out not to be true.
“Iraq's behavior demonstrates that (former Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort — no effort — to disarm as required by the international community,” Powell said then. “Indeed, the facts and Iraq's behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.”
Powell later called it a “great intelligence failure on our part” and said he regretted his testimony, calling it a “blot” on his record.
Powell, however, maintained, in a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, that on balance, the U.S. succeeded in Iraq.
“I think we had a lot of successes,” Powell said. “Iraq’s terrible dictator is gone.”
Hussein was captured by U.S. forces while hiding out in northern Iraq in December 2003 and later executed by the Iraqi government. But the insurgency grew, and the war dragged on far longer than had been foreseen. President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, but he sent advisers back in 2014 after the Islamic State group swept into the country from Syria and captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.
Powell was the first American official to publicly lay the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and made a lightning trip to Pakistan in October 2001 to demand that then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cooperate with the United States in going after the Afghanistan-based group, which also had a presence in Pakistan, where bin Laden was later killed.
Powell served in the military for 35 years, including two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, where he was wounded by a punji-stick booby trap. He was commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command in 1989 before being appointed Joints Chief of Staff chairman in 1989, a position he held for four years before retiring.
As chairman, he oversaw major military operations including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91.
Powell’s popularity among both Democrats and Republicans led to his name being floated as a potential presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, but he declined to run.
"Such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear," Powell said in November 1995 after taking time to consider a possible candidacy. "And for me to pretend otherwise would not be honest to myself, it would not be honest to the American people.”
Despite his conservative background, Powell emerged as a vocal Donald Trump critic in recent years, describing Trump as “a national disgrace” who should have been removed from office through impeachment. Following the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, Powell said he no longer considered himself a Republican.
Bush released a statement Monday morning saying he and wife Laura are “deeply saddened” by Powell’s death.
“He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam,” the former president said. “Many Presidents relied on General Powell's counsel and experience. ... He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend."
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden called Powell “a dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor” as well as “a good man.”
“He believed in the promise of America because he lived it,” President Biden said. “And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others.
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” Biden added. “He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity. 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. 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."
Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House, at other federal buildings and on naval vessels in honor of Powell.
Obama applauded Powell for refusing “to accept that race would limit his dreams,” adding that although Powell would be "the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served.”
In a statement, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that Powell "lived the promise of America, and spent a lifetime working to help our country, especially our young people, live up to its own ideals and noblest aspirations at home and around the world."
Powell crossed party lines to endorse Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Obama said he was more impressed by the way Powell did it, firing back at conspiracy theorists who believed Obama was secretly a Muslim.
“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” Powell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
Former President Jimmy Carter, who worked with Powell during a 1994 peacekeeping mission in Haiti and again in overseeing elections in Jamaica in 1997, called the former secretary of state “a true patriot and public servant.”
“His courage and integrity will be an inspiration for generations to come," Carter said. "We will keep his family in our prayers during this difficult time."
Vice President Kamala Harris said Powell “served our nation with courage, unwavering in his belief in its principles and its promise."
"The legacy that he leaves behind — on America’s national security and on the leaders he mentored — can be seen every day across our nation and the world,” Harris said.
Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Powell was an “extraordinary leader” who was “beloved” at the State Department.
“He gave the State Department the very best of his leadership, his experience, his patriotism. He gave us his decency. And the State Department loved him for it,” Blinken said. “Secretary Powell trusted the career workforce here. He empowered them. He made sure that the desk officer who knew a particular country or issue most deeply was the one who got to brief him or the president.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that “the world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed.” Austin called Powell “a tremendous personal friend and mentor.”
“A man who was respected around the globe,” Austin said. “And, quite frankly, it is not possible to replace a Colin Powell."
Powell is survived by his wife of 59 years, Alma, and three children.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.