Gen. Colin L. Powell: The World's Most Powerful Soldier

By Randolph, Laura B. | Ebony, February 1990 | Go to article overview

Gen. Colin L. Powell: The World's Most Powerful Soldier


Randolph, Laura B., Ebony


Gen. Colin L. Powell

YOU could see it on their faces. This wasn't just another military ceremony at the Pentagon. This was different. This was history. That is why on October 3, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney sent word to the Pentagon's more than 20,000 employes that, at 3:30 p.m., the world's most powerful military headquarters would grind to a halt to formally welcome Colin Luther Powell to his new post--a post no Black man had ever held before: chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Top Gun.

It was, by any measure, a sight to behold. By the hundreds, people streamed through the Defense Department's doors, walking three and four deep, a huge human wave rolling onto the Pentagon's perfectly manicured courtyard. For Black employes in particular, Powell's arrival was especially stirring. They would take part in an event about which they would tell their children--and their children's children.

At precisely 3:30, Gen. Powell stepped out into the courtyard in full military regalia--a commanding presence, 6'1", 52 years old, erect, beribboned, born to command.

When Powell took the podium, all conversation halted. And as he began to tell a story--of inspiration, of family, of young men going off to war--it became clear that no one in this throng saw the significance of his appointment more clearly than the general himself.

NO ONE knows as well as Gen. Powell just how far this occasion is from Harlem, where he was born to Jamaican immigrants during the Depression. Father still from the South Bronx where he grew up, and even from the City College of New York where as a teenager, unsure of himself, his ambitions or his future, he signed up for ROTC.

His has been a life filled with challenges he always has met head-on with an iron determination to honor his parents' expectations that he make something of himself--a determination never, never to let them down.

But Gen. Powell now faces the toughest of these challenges. It's not just the job, although that would be tough enough for any man. But Powell also must contend with the tension created by the recent reduction in military spending after years of growth, not to mention the great expectation of all those he represents by virtue of his achievement.

So far away is all that from this moment of glory, Powell admits that he never dreamed the door to the chairman's Pentagon office might one day bear his name. "My ambitions, such that they were, were much more modest at the time," he later confesses. "They were simply to get out of New York, get a job and go out and have some excitement. At that time I never even thought seriously about staying in the Army. My parents expected that, like most young men going in the Army, I would serve for two years . . . and then come home and get a real job."

Powell didn't come home after graduation in 1958, but he did get a real job. Graduating from City College as an ROTC cadet colonel, the highest possible rank, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army and sent to West Germany. A series of "real jobs" followed, including command of an infantry battalion in South Korea and two tours of combat in Vietnam. In each he proved himself a soldier's soldier, winning five combat medals, including the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Eventually Powell's impeccable record brought him to Washington where he would make the contacts that would forever change not just his personal history, but history itself. Powell had also earned an MBA from George Washington University, and in 1972, was selected to be a White House Fellow--one of the most prestigious government programs.

He went to work at the Office of Management and Budget and it was there he met two of this decade's most influential political powerbrokers: Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense; and Frank Carlucci, Reagan's national security advisor.

It's hard to figure out Washington politics, but one thing is clear: from the beginning, both Weinberger and Carlucci thought the world of Powell. …

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