Colin Powell, former secretary of state, dies at 84 of COVID complications Powell's family said that he died of complications from COVID-19, although he was fully vaccinated. Powell was a former general turned statesman who served as secretary of state under George W. Bush.

Colin Powell, a former secretary of state, dies at 84

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Colin Powell has died. He served as U.S. secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and national security adviser. And he was the first Black person to hold each of those positions.


Powell's family says his death was due to complications from COVID-19, though he was fully vaccinated. Deaths in vaccinated people are rare, but they do happen. A spokesperson tells NPR that Powell had been treated in the past for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that compromises the immune system. He also had Parkinson's disease.

SHAPIRO: Colin Powell was 84 years old. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in a working-class family in the Bronx. He leaves behind an enormous legacy, built largely on his role in the first U.S. war with Iraq and complicated by his role in the second. NPR's Don Gonyea has more.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Colin Powell lived a life of groundbreaking accomplishment. Not bad for a man who, in a TED talk, once described his youthful self this way.


COLIN POWELL: I was not a great student. I was a public school kid in New York City, and I didn't do well at all - straight C everywhere.

GONYEA: He went to Morris High School in the Bronx, class of '54, then City University of New York. It was there that he discovered his true calling, the military. He joined the school's Reserve Officer Training Program, ROTC.


POWELL: And I found my place. I found discipline. I found structure. I found people that were like me and I liked. And I fell in love with the Army that first few months in ROTC, and it lasted for the next 40-odd years.

GONYEA: That's from a conversation with NPR in 2012. Powell says he found in the Army a culture where your race or background or income level didn't define you. You could find a path to success. In the '60s, he did two tours in Vietnam, the first in 1962 when the U.S. was mostly advising the South Vietnamese military.


POWELL: We were there to save the world from communism. And if this was where it popped up, by gosh, here's where we're going to do it.

GONYEA: A second tour came in 1968. By then, the U.S. had a half-million troops in Vietnam, and Powell's early optimism was gone. He recalled those days on C-SPAN in 1995.


POWELL: We were essentially in a war and we weren't sure how we were going to get out of this war. We weren't sure that we were prepared to make the investment that would be required to either win or get out with honor.

GONYEA: After the war, Powell rose through the ranks and vowed to learn from the mistakes of Vietnam and to work to restore Americans' faith in their armed forces. A major test of both came in 1990. Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, a U.S. ally. George H.W. Bush was president.


GEORGE H W BUSH: There is no justification whatsoever for this outrageous and brutal act of aggression.

GONYEA: By now, Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Operation Desert Storm, as it was called, ended quickly with a decisive victory. And Powell, thanks to daily press briefings, became a household name. The public loved his clear, no-nonsense approach.


POWELL: Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it.

GONYEA: Shortly afterward, Powell retired from the military. He wrote a memoir and was immediately seen as a potential presidential candidate. Ultimately, he decided against seeking office but did declare that he was a Republican. Still, public service beckoned when President elect George W. Bush chose him to be secretary of state.


GEORGE W BUSH: He is a tower of strength and common sense. When you find somebody like that, you have to hang on to them.

GONYEA: Then in that first year in office, the terror attacks of 9/11. The war in Afghanistan followed. Then President Bush started pressing for another war in Iraq. The president said Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, that he was a threat that needed to be removed. Administration hard-liners, including Vice President Dick Cheney, urged swift action. Secretary of State Powell had doubts.

Powell did convince the president to first go to the United Nations to get support. That's when Bush asked him to go make the case himself. Powell first met with U.S. intelligence officials to hear the evidence they had gathered. He then delivered a dramatic presentation to the U.N. in early 2003.


POWELL: Here you see 15 munitions bunkers in yellow and red outlines. The four that are in red squares represent active chemical munitions bunkers.

GONYEA: But skeptical allies were not convinced, so the war was launched without U.N. backing. Overwhelming force quickly removed Saddam Hussein from power, but no WMDs were ever found, and the U.S. got bogged down for years. Powell would later look back at his U.N. speech and say he'd been given wrong information by intelligence agencies he'd trusted.


POWELL: But it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that, I am - I'm disappointed, and I regret it.

GONYEA: Colin Powell's previously stellar reputation was damaged by the war and by that speech. He left the Bush administration after one term. In retirement, Colin Powell spent time at his foundation, working as a mentor for young African Americans. But in 2008 came one more important moment. That's when Powell, a Republican, endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president. This was on NBC's "Meet The Press."


POWELL: He has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure. He is...

GONYEA: It was Powell very publicly rejecting the GOP, but it was also one iconic African American endorsing a younger man trying to break the country's ultimate racial barrier. Throughout his life, Powell was often asked about race in America. In 1994, he spoke to the graduating class at the historically Black Howard University.


POWELL: I stand here today as a direct descendant of those Buffalo soldiers and of the Tuskegee Airmen and all the Black men and women who have served the nation in uniform, all of whom who served in their time and in their way and with whatever opportunity existed at that time to break down the walls of discrimination and racism, to make the path easier for those of us who came after them.

GONYEA: Colin Powell was never a frontline activist in the American civil rights movement, but his legacy is one of breaking barriers. He worked through institutions, the military, in politics, through philanthropy, seeking to create opportunities for those who would follow him.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.


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