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When Gen. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he gave a speech about Gen. George Marshall, who as Army chief of staff had, in effect, held Powell's job during World War II and, like Powell, later served as secretary of state.
It was Marshall's supreme humility that impressed and inspired Powell, who cited his predecessor's refusal to write his memoirs, run for office, exploit his fame, or seek recognition and favors. "He was not a character," Powell said. "There were no ... anecdotes to spice up the legend of Marshall. He was a man driven more than anything else by a sense of duty, by the powerful, overwhelming obligation of service. ... The quiet power of the man lay in his utter selflessness."
Like most public figures, before or since, Powell did not always measure up to the standards he described in Marshall. But when, at 84, he died last week of cancer complicated by the coronavirus, there was universal agreement that Powell was one of a very small number of senior military officers in American history who had also served their country with distinction and fidelity as statesmen.
Powell's status as a career officer is of crucial importance in any understanding of him as a public servant and citizen, and of what his life meant to his fellow Americans. The son of Jamaican immigrants of mixed African and Scottish ancestry — his father was a shipping clerk and his mother a seamstress — Powell was born in Harlem in 1937 and raised in the South Bronx. The Powells were not impoverished, but they weren't especially comfortable, either, and in 1954, he declined admission to New York University because the tuition was $750 a year. "I would never impose that on my parents," he later wrote.
So off he went to the City College of New York, where the tuition was free and its ROTC program, in which he enrolled, offered direction, fellowship, training, and, not least, the prospect of a commission in an Army that had been desegregated less than a decade before. As he frequently reminded admirers, Powell had been a comparatively mediocre student — he earned a C average while pursuing a degree in geology — but he turned out to be an exemplary cadet, and in his early years as a Cold War infantry officer in West Germany, he revealed leadership qualities that, combined with tact, shrewd intelligence, and self-discipline, propelled him forward in the ranks of the peacetime Army.
To be sure, Powell's singular qualities would probably have revealed themselves under other circumstances. But he remained grateful to "Mother Army" for giving direction to his young life and opening a succession of doors to a onetime underachiever from Harlem.
The Army's growing confidence in Powell was reflected in his service in 1962-63 as one of the pioneering American "advisers" to the South Vietnamese army. He returned to Southeast Asia in 1968 as a battalion staff officer and later as the operations officer for an infantry division in which he survived the crash of his helicopter and, with a broken ankle, dragged the division's commanding general from the wreckage to safety.
Powell later maintained that his second tour bred skepticism in him about the American mission in Vietnam, but he kept his own counsel, and thereafter, his rise was rapid. He commanded a battalion in South Korea, a brigade in the famous 101st Airborne Division in West Germany, and in 1979 was promoted to brigadier general, at 42 the youngest general officer of his day. Part of the coterie of younger officers determined to rebuild and reform the post-Vietnam Army, he got his first glimpse of the corridors of power in the Reagan administration when he was recruited by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to serve as his senior military assistant, followed by a corps command in West Germany.
Five months later, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan brought Powell, by then a full general, back to Washington to become his national security adviser. When Reagan left office, Powell returned to the Pentagon to head the Army's Forces Command. Once again, however, his tenure was truncated by an unexpected summons: In October 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, promoting him over a dozen or so more senior officers to a post newly empowered by congressional legislation to be the "principal military adviser to the president and secretary of defense."
It was during his term as chairman that he developed what came to be known in the press as the Powell Doctrine, a series of questions that, briefly summarized, must be answered affirmatively before the United States undertakes military action abroad: Are national security interests truly threatened, is there a clear, attainable objective and plausible exit strategy, does the action enjoy widespread public support, and are resources overwhelming and decisive?
No doubt, the Powell Doctrine derived from its author's cautionary experience of Vietnam. But it was vindicated by the brisk 1989 invasion of Panama to topple its drug-lord dictator and, in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, by the equally swift expulsion of Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. Powell's preview of events was succinct and deadly — "our strategy to go after the [Iraqi] army is very, very simple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it" — and success made him a national hero.
The kind of hero who, after his retirement from the Army and publication of a bestselling memoir, My American Journey (1995), became the first soldier since Dwight D. Eisenhower to be recruited by political activists from both parties to run for president. Powell declined to run in 1996 but did announce that he was switching his registration from independent to Republican, and in 2000, when President-elect George W. Bush asked him to serve as his secretary of state, Powell accepted.
This was surely the culmination of Powell's "American journey," and not just as soldier-statesman in the Marshall tradition but as a trusted and exemplary patriot and historic figure, the first black National Security Council director, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state.
The epilogue, however, was more complicated. Skilled and successful as a diplomat, Powell's stature within the State Department and among allies was supreme, and it was especially beneficial following 9/11 and the punitive invasion of Afghanistan. But as planning for an American invasion of Iraq accelerated, Powell found himself increasingly estranged from the Bush White House. Settling on the only device that he believed justified military action, the threat of "Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction," he marshaled evidence from the CIA and other intelligence agencies in a speech to the United Nations to make the case for disarming Iraq.
As we know now, the intelligence was largely wrong, and the speech has long since been used as a cudgel against Powell's reputation. But this is unfair and unwarranted: Powell was genuinely persuaded by what he learned from the CIA and honorably supported Bush's decision to go to war. He had no reason to apologize, as he once did, for any "blot" on his record. Like his hero George Marshall, Colin Powell's long and exceptional service, and his extraordinary life, remain his enduring hallmark.
Philip Terzian is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.
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Original Author: Philip Terzian
Original Location: Colin Powell, 1937-2021