The Nineties in America
Identification: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1989-1993
Born: April 5, 1937; New York, New York
General Powell's leadership during the Gulf War catapulted him into the national spotlight and caused many to think of him as a suitable candidate for major national office.
Colin Powell's distinguished military career began in 1958 and included valorous combat service and a succession of increasingly responsible command and staff positions, frequently in the offices of high-ranking political figures. In 1987, he was named national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. His appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in October, 1989, made him the highest-ranking military official in the new administration of President George H. W. Bush and put him in the forefront of several key issues that would dominate the national agenda for the next four years.
Powell was called on almost immediately to orchestrate a military intervention in Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega. The lessons learned from this operation were important when he was called on to marshal U.S. forces against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who invaded neighboring Kuwait in August, 1990. For the next seven months, Powell was the public face of the U.S. military buildup aimed at protecting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait's neighbor, and evicting Iraq from Kuwait. Powell promoted a strategy that would commit overwhelming force to the operation once the American public was solidly behind the effort. The United States' unqualified success solidified the American public's esteem for Powell, whose candor and integrity made people feel confident in his abilities.
Both during and after the Gulf War, Powell was active in developing a new strategic mission for the U.S. military, reducing force size and eliminating many nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, although he was still on active duty, Powell was approached by both Republican and Democratic political strategists regarding his willingness to serve in high political offices. Then and later, Powell turned down such opportunities. When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Powell remained in his position as JCS chairman and almost immediately became embroiled in debates about Clinton's wish to permit gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 1993, Powell retired from active duty, although not before engaging in confrontations with members of Clinton's cabinet over potential U.S. involvement in Somalia and Bosnia.
After retiring, Powell committed himself to public speaking and writing his autobiography, My American Journey, which became a best seller in 1995. Pressure to become a candidate for president continued, fueled in part by Powell's immense popularity. Finally, in 1995, Powell made a public announcement that he would not run, effectively quelling efforts by both parties to have him be their standard-bearer. Two years later, he founded America's Promise, a nonprofit organization committed to improving educational and employment opportunities for American youth.
In 2001, Powell became secretary of state under President George W. Bush. His four-year tenure in the position was marred by constant squabbling with more conservative members of the president's cabinet. Further, his public image was damaged when, in an attempt to convince Congress to declare war against Iraq in 2003, he asserted that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, a claim later proven to be false.
DeYoung, Karen. Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Powell, Colin, with Joseph E. Persico. My American Journey. New York: Random House, 1995.
Steins, Richard. Colin Powell: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Laurence W. MazzenoSee Also
Bosnia conflict; Bush, George H. W.; Cheney, Dick; Clinton, Bill; CNN coverage of the Gulf War; Cold War, end of; Defense budget cuts; Don't ask, don't tell; Elections in the United States, 1996; Gulf War; Noriega capture and trial; Schwarzkopf, Norman; Somalia conflict; Wolfowitz, Paul.
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