Colin Luther Powell (born April 5, 1937) is an American statesman and a retired four-star general in the United States Army. He was the 65th United States Secretary of State, serving under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. He was the first African American to serve in that position. During his military career, Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987–1989), as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989) and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–1993), holding the latter position during the Gulf War. He was the first, and so far the only, African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, to Jamaican immigrant parents. Powell was raised in the South Bronx and attended Morris High School, a former public school in the Bronx, from which he graduated in 1954. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in geology from the City College of New York in 1958 and was a self-admitted C average student. He was later able to earn a Master of Business Administration degree from the George Washington University in 1971, after his second tour in Vietnam.
Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, the ROTC fraternal organization and drill team begun by General John Pershing. Upon graduation, he received a commission as an Army second lieutenant. He was a professional soldier for 35 years, holding a variety of command and staff positions and rising to the rank of General. Powell was a captain during the Vietnam War, serving as a South Vietnamese Army adviser from 1962 to 1963. While on patrol in a Viet Cong-held area, he was wounded by stepping on a punji stake. He returned to Vietnam as a major in 1968, serving in the Americal Division (23rd Infantry Division), then as assistant chief of staff of operations for the Americal Division. He was charged with investigating a detailed letter by Tom Glen (a soldier from the 11th Light Infantry Brigade), which backed up rumored allegations of the My Lai Massacre.
Powell served a White House fellowship, a highly selective and prestigious position, under President Richard Nixon from 1972 to 1973. At the age of 49, Powell became Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, serving from 1987 to 1989 while retaining his Army commission as a lieutenant general. After his tenure with the National Security Council, Powell was promoted to a full general under President George H.W. Bush and briefly served as Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of Forces Command (FORSCOM), overseeing all Army, Army Reserve, and National Guard units in the Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
His last military assignment, from October 1, 1989 to September 30, 1993, was as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. At age 52, he became the youngest officer, and first Afro-Caribbean American, to serve in this position. In 1989, he joined Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alexander Haig as the third general since World War II to reach four-star rank without ever being a divisional commander.
During his chairmanship of the JCS, there was discussion of awarding Powell a fifth star, granting him the rank of General of the Army. But even in the wake of public and Congressional pressure to do so, Clinton-Gore presidential transition team staffers decided against it.
In 2001, newly elected President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell to be Secretary of State. At the time, it was the highest rank ever held by an African American in the United States government. In his first months in office, Powell won praise for his efficient administration of the State Department, and cordial relations with other governments. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Secretary Powell took a leading role in rallying America’s allies for military action in Afghanistan.