Colin Powell, the first black secretary of state in U.S. history and an Army general who helped shape U.S. policy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has died of COVID-19 complications, his family said in a statement posted on Facebook on Monday.

The Powell family stated, “General Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passed away this morning due to complications from Covid 19.”

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather, and a great American,” they added. The family also thanked the staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to the statement. 

Colin Powell was a trailblazer for African-Americans. Born to Jamaican immigrant parents, he rose from humble beginnings in Harlem, NY, to join the Army in 1958 after attending ROTC at the City College of New York. 

He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was wounded in action. After attending the Army’s War College, he was promoted to brigadier general above his peers. In 1987, under the Reagan Administration, he became the nation’s first African-American national security adviser. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush tapped Powell to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Desert Storm

Colin Powell Norman Schwartzkopf
Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf sit in a briefing during the first Gulf War. (Wikimedia Commons)

“First we’re going to cut it off. Then we’re going to kill it,” Powell had stated about the Iraqi army in a no-nonsense quote to the media during the first Gulf War. 

He later was nominated as the secretary of state by George W. Bush and served for four years, before being succeeded by Condoleezza Rice. 

He did make mistakes, however. As secretary of state, Powell made the case for invading Iraq, including in a speech he gave to the United Nations in 2003. He claimed Iraq had misled UN inspectors and had hidden weapons of mass destruction from them.

“There can be no doubt,” Powell had said, “that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” 


An Honorable Man

Unlike leaders today in the State Department and the Pentagon, Powell took responsibility for his mistakes. In an interview with Larry King, he characterized his call to invade Iraq as a blot on his record. 

“I regret it now because the information was wrong — of course I do,” Colin Powell had said to Larry King. “But I will always be seen as the one who made the case before the international community.”

“I swayed public opinion, there’s no question about it,” he had added. 

Powell was raised as a possible Republican presidential candidate in both 1996 and 2000. Yet, he said he had no passion to run for office, instead endorsing Bush in 2000.

After firmly denouncing the Trump presidential campaign and resultant presidency, Powell told a CNN reporter that he no longer considered himself a Republican, but a person who had voted for both parties. (He had voted for Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020). “And right now, I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”

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The 13 Rules of Colin Powell

1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
2. Get mad, then get over it.
3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
4. It can be done!
5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
8. Check small things.
9. Share credit.
10. Remain calm. Be kind.
11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. (In the military, one always looks for ways to increase or multiply his forces.)

Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to include Colin Powell’s 13 rules.