BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Spanish Portuguese Caribbean

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Americas  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Saturday, 5 August, 2000, 05:54 GMT 06:54 UK
Colin Powell: The Republican's trump card
By Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

During the Gulf War, visitors to Colin Powell's office in the Pentagon could not fail to notice the quotation which was sealed into the glass covering of the General's desk.

It was from the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides and read: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."

After his recent speech to the Republican National Convention, in which he challenged the Party to don "the mantle of Lincoln" and embrace minorities, one could be forgiven for thinking that Colin Powell has ignored this maxim.

Colin Powell addressing the Republican convention
Colin Powell exhorting Republicans to embrace minorities
Powell, who at 52 became the youngest, and first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America's highest ranking soldier, has shown immense restraint. This applies to both his military and civilian lives.

At 63, he is a national hero whose charismatic image bridges America's racial divide. The Presidency is said to stand at his feet. But, even with an 81% popularity rating, which clearly outstrips any potential political rivals, he still hesitates to state any political ambitions.

Colin (he pronounces his first name in the British manner) Powell was born in 1937, into a family of Jamaican immigrants and was brought up in the poor South Bronx area of New York City.

Following a first taste of military life, as a cadet in his college's officer training corps, he decided to make the Army his career and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1958.

During the 1960s he completed two tours of duty in Vietnam, the first as a military adviser to the South Vietnamese Army. During his second tour, the helicopter in which he was travelling crashed and Powell was decorated for rescuing his troops from the blazing wreckage.

Powell in combat gear
Preparing for action in the Gulf
From that moment on Colin Powell enjoyed a rapid rise to the top. After alternating between military commands and staff jobs in Washington, he became senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1983, where he played a major role in operations such as the invasion of Grenada and the US bombing of Libya.

In 1987 President Reagan asked Powell to serve as his National Security Adviser. One of the few White House advisers to be untainted by the Arms to Iraq scandal, he was a key member of Reagan's staff during the negotiations which led to the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union.

But Colin Powell became a world famous figure in 1990 when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he ran the successful campaign against the Iraqi forces which had invaded Kuwait.

He summarised the plan thus: "Our strategy for going after this army is very, very, simple. First we are going to cut it off, then we are going to kill it."

However, behind the scenes, he was less hawkish. In another example of restraint, General Powell opposed sending US forces in to Kuwait, preferring merely to defend the Saudi oilfields.

Powell lecturing fellow black Americans
Powell challenging black Americans to fulfill their potential
Following his retirement in 1993, he published his memoirs, earning him an estimated $6.5m advance. He has dedicated himself to improving race relations.

In his frequent lectures to black children, he challenges them to fulfil their true potential.

His credibility in a Republican Party almost totally dominated by whites is crucial to the party's electoral chances, even though his liberal views on abortion (pro-choice) and positive discrimination for minorities (he is in favour) are at odds with those of the vast majority of his colleagues.

Though he has ruled himself out of running for the White House (his wife fears he would be assassinated), he is strongly tipped to become Secretary of State in a future Bush administration.

If this occurs, Colin Powell would become the most powerful black man in American history, making the idea of a future black President more tangible than ever.

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |