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Commemorating Colin Powell

On October 18, 2021 America lost a remarkable leader and public servant. Colin Powell served as the highest ranking soldier, national security advisor, and diplomat. Powell served the U.S. Army for thirty-five years, rising through the ranks to become a four-star general. Additionally, Powell was the first Black national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state. Not only do we grieve a profoundly successful leader, but a problem-solver who helped pave new pathways for America and those who succeed him.

January 27, 2003: Secretary Powell gives a briefing on Iraqi non-cooperation and continued defiance of the will of the UN (2003) | State Department Archives by Michael Gross
January 27, 2003: Secretary Powell gives a briefing on Iraqi non-cooperation and continued defiance of the will of the UN (2003) | State Department Archives by Michael Gross

Powell was born in Harlem, New York to Luther and Maud Powell, both Jamaican immigrants, in 1937. After growing up in the South Bronx and graduating from City College of New York, Powell joined the Army through the ROTC [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] program and was commissioned as second lieutenant. Powell served two decorated tours in Vietnam, where he received the soldier’s medal for pulling his comrades from a burning helicopter. Throughout his military career, Powell held many high level positions including the commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command. Even as a top military official, Powell was a dedicated leader and a great listener. When describing leadership he said, “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

At the age of forty-nine, Powell was appointed as the national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Powell worked closely with President Reagan at the end of the Cold War to negotiate arms treaties and foster cooperation with Soviet president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In October of 1989, Powell was selected as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H.W. Bush, which is the highest military position in the Department of Defense. In this position Powell played a pivotal role in the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, under this appointment he developed the Powell Doctrine, which focused on identifying clear military and political objectives, gaining public support, and employing decisive and overwhelming force to defeat adversaries.

On January 20, 2001, Powell became the sixty-fifth secretary of state—the first African-American and Jamaican-American to hold the position. After the 9/11 attacks and the declaration of the “war on terror,” Powell’s role as secretary of state became crucial in creating a coalition of allies. In the policy arena, Powell competed with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the ear of President George W. Bush. Powell’s military doctrine was quite contrary to Donald Rumsfeld’s strong belief in a heavy reliance on the air force and small technical ground forces. During the build up to the war in Iraq in 2003, Powell’s job was to gather international support for a multinational coalition. In a speech to the United Nations in February of 2003, Powell confirmed the U.S. had concrete evidence that Suddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Powell later came under fire for the irregularities in his UN speech and support for the War in Iraq. In an interview, Powell reported that he felt terrible for his mistake and admitted that it was a “blot” on his reputation. Even under criticism, Powell was not afraid to own up to his mistakes.

In addition to his role in the War in Iraq, U.S. diplomats remembered Secretary Powell as a revolutionary and pathbreaker who brought twenty-first century technology to the department. High speed internet was installed in embassies world wide, improving daily operations. Additionally, Powell expanded training for Foreign Service officers and political appointees abroad.

After leaving the State Department in 2005, Powell returned to private life, writing two books and occasionally commenting on current affairs. In 2006, ADST awarded Secretary Powell with the Ralph Bunche Award for Excellence in Diplomacy. Additionally, he became an honorary director of ADST in February of 2006.

Colin Powell exemplified the characteristics of a genuine American hero. The Association of Diplomatic Studies extends our condolences to the Powell family.

Read Ambassador A. Elizabeth Jones’s full oral history HERE.

Read Ambassador Henry Allen Holmes’s full oral history HERE.

Read Ambassador E. Michael Southwick’s full oral history HERE.

Read Ambassador Frank Charles Carlucci III’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Kellie McSween

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Ambassador A. Elizabeth Jones

Table of Contents Highlights
Joined the Foreign Service 1970
Washington, DC—European and Eurasian Affairs, Assistant Secretary 2001–2005
Washington, DC—NEA Bureau, Acting Assistant Secretary 2012–2013

“He empowered everyone at every level to be their best.”
JONES: … First, I thought that the way Secretary Powell led the State Department was a model for how it is best led. What he did was he empowered everyone at every level to be their best, to make decisions, to collaborate and cooperate in ways that were very energizing for absolutely everybody. I’d like to think that after the four years that he was there with us and embodied that philosophy, that we tried to pass it on. We implemented it and tried to pass it on to all of our colleagues. It has stayed for at least a while, I think. It did stay for a while. And, maybe can come back. It was certainly there when Bill Burns was deputy secretary. He certainly brought it back.

Image from 2006 gala. Found in ADST archives
Image from 2006 gala. Found in ADST archives
Ambassador John F. Maisto

Table of Contents Highlights
Joined the Foreign Service 1968
Washington, DC—Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America 1992–1994
Caracus, Venezuela—Ambassador 1997–2000
Washington, DC—Political Advisor to SOUTHCOM and Senior Director for Latin America National Security Council 2000–2003

“Colin Powell was a spectacular secretary of state.”

Q: How did you see Colin Powell at the State Department?

MAISTO: I think Colin Powell was a spectacular secretary of state, for a variety of reasons. Number one, he did have star quality in representing the U.S. overseas. He also represented a real breakthrough in our country—an African-American as secretary of state. This was also recognized around the world. With regard to his approach to Latin America, he was very patient, he listened. He knew he never served there, but he did have policy background that involved the Western hemisphere. For example, my recollection of Colin Powell is back in 1989 over the Panama situation, when he stepped in as chairman of the joint chiefs. At that time, I was chargé d’affaires in our embassy in Panama. General Max Thurmond, who was Colin Powell’s guy in the Southern Command. We organized ourselves in the George H. W. Bush administration to deal with the Panamanian problem of Noriega’s “last stand.” I remember that Powell was quite skilled working in the interagency environment, commanding respect from within the government. It was a joy to be with him in interagency meetings at the situation room as we reviewed each issue.

Ambassador Henry Allen Holmes

Table of Contents Highlights
Joined the Foreign Service 1957
Washington, DC—EUR Deputy Assistant Secretary of State 1979–1982
Washington, DC—Political-Military Affairs Assistant Secretary 1985–1989
Washington, DC—Department of Defense Assistant Secretary 1993–1999

“The Sierra Leoneans were just absolutely ecstatic that he came.”

HOLMES: By the way, I should comment here that over that four-year period when I saw Colin Powell first as the military assistant, then as the deputy national security advisor, and then as national security advisor in his own right, which happened after Frank Carlucci moved over to replace Weinberger as Secretary of Defense, Colin Powell was a remarkable senior official of our government. I mean, the guy had extraordinarily good common sense, good judgment. He was very schooled in all the issues. He did his homework. He never came to a meeting where he didn’t know absolutely everything that needed to be known about the subject at hand and was helpful to both secretaries in moving an issue that was stalled, where there wasn’t a sufficient focus or where the issue really wasn’t joint. Sometimes he used kind of what I would call silly humor. I remember one particularly difficult discussion which ended in silence. It was one of those pregnant silences that is so embarrassing that you feel it’s going on for minutes. In total it was probably less than a minute. It was a very long silence, and finally here we were having breakfast, and Colin Powell said, with his winning smile, “Okay, it’s time for a milk and cookies break.” Which was totally absurd, but it broke the ice. Everybody laughed, and somebody was waiting for that to happen, and we got back to business. And the guy was a remarkable leader in that sense. And I’ll tell you, later on, when I saw watched his struggling with his possible candidacy for President, I have to tell you that I was very hopeful that he would run, because I think Colin Powell would make a great President…

Anyhow he went to Senegal, had a good visit there, then he came to Sierra Leone where he was welcomed like the king of England. The Sierra Leoneans were just absolutely ecstatic that he came. He had a terrific visit. The government loved him. The people loved him. He liked the people. He liked the country. We showed him some things that he wasn’t aware of.

Official portrait of Colin L. Powell as the Secretary of State of the United States of America. (2001) | U.S. Department of State
Official portrait of Colin L. Powell as the Secretary of State of the United States of America. (2001) | U.S. Department of State
Ambassador E. Michael Southwick

Table of Contents Highlights
Joined the Foreign Service 1967
Kampala, Uganda—Ambassador 1994–1997
Washington, DC—Human Rights Bureau, Deputy Asst. Secretary 1997–2002

“The Foreign Service loves Colin Powell and he’s done very good things for it.”

SOUTHWICK: David was kind of segmented running this. The principal deputy was Bill Wood who was an extraordinarily bright, talented guy, not easy to work with. He had come there, after Princeton Lyman left, to replace Molly Williamson. He and I ended up being like Tweedledee and Tweedledum. It was one of these oddball relationships. He was sort of a hard-ass, brilliant, put people on the spot, very different work style than I have. I’m very collaborative, interactive, let’s all get along together, tell me what you’ve got to say. For some reason it was just one of these symbiotic relationships that worked perfectly between the two of us. We were basically taking care of everything except for the bits that Welch was doing. Now, when Colin Powell came in, we all liked Powell. I mean who wouldn’t like Powell. We briefed him and he was very attentive….

The Foreign Service loves Colin Powell and he’s done very good things for it, which is an important thing, but he’s the captain of the ship during probably the most disastrous period of American foreign policy.

Ambassador Frank Charles Carlucci III

Table of Contents Highlights
Joined the Foreign Service 1956
Washington, DC—Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Agency 1978–1981
Washington, DC—White House National Security Advisor 1986–1987
Washington, DC—Secretary of Defense 1987–1989

“That was some kind of record in changing the rules of engagement.”

Q: In mentioning Schwarzkopf . . . .. When you talked about the Airbus thing over Iran, how did you view the Persian Gulf situation during your time from ’87 to ’89?

CARLUCCI: Well, that was our biggest crisis. When I became National Security Advisor, one of the first things I did was try and address the Persian Gulf situation. I was essentially the point person in the Kuwaiti Reflagging Operation. Essentially we reflagged Kuwaiti ships so we could provide escorts for them. It was not without its drawbacks. Some people like Mitch McConnell [Republican Senator from Kentucky] argued quite persuasively, “How come you are escorting foreign tankers even though they carry the American flag and American owned bottoms carrying foreign flags are not escorted?” The Iranians became more and more aggressive; you may even recall they sent a flotilla to threaten Saudi Arabia. They were harassing ships at an increasing pace. We had already taken out one of their oil platforms. When I came over to the Pentagon, tensions were high. As you know, fighting did in fact, break out. We sank about half the Iranian Navy in about 24 hours. We lost one helicopter. I think there were two people on board. But the casualties on our side were very light. That was an engagement that essentially Bill Crowe and I conducted [from] the operations center in the Pentagon. In fact, there’s a couple of stories that are interesting. The Iranians fired on us. We had an airplane in the air and the pilot requested permission to attack. We had to change the rules of engagement to do that. So, I called Colin Powell and I said, “Colin, you need to get the President right away, because I need different rules of engagement in order to retaliate.”

Colin called the President and got back to me inside of five minutes. That was some kind of record in changing the rules of engagement.