Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the first Black secretary of state and a key figure in Republican administrations who rose from humble origins to the military’s highest ranks, died Monday of complications from COVID-19, his family said.
Mr. Powell, 84, also broke barriers as the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Biden, who ordered U.S. flags lowered to half-staff, said Mr. Powell “embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat.”
“He believed in the promise of America because he lived it,” said Mr. Biden, noting Mr. Powell’s upbringing in a fraying New York City neighborhood. “And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others.”
The retired four-star Army general was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, his family said. But he also had been treated in recent years for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that impairs the body’s ability to fight infection. He also had Parkinson’s disease.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the family said on Facebook.
Mr. Powell served in the Vietnam War and as the first Black national security adviser during the Reagan administration. He was the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President George H.W. Bush and was floated periodically as a contender for the presidency.
Although he served in Republican administrations, Mr. Powell endorsed the past four Democratic candidates for president and described President Trump as “a national disgrace.” He said he voted for Mr. Biden last year.
In 1991, Mr. Powell’s oversight of the U.S.-led forces’ rapid destruction of the Iraqi army in Kuwait brought him to the attention of average Americans.
He encountered controversy under President George W. Bush for his role in supporting the Iraq War in 2003 and concerns about the intelligence used to justify it. Mr. Powell’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat was marred by his address to the U.N. Security Council, in which he cited faulty information to claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed weapons of mass destruction.
Such weapons never materialized. Although Saddam was removed, the war devolved into years of military and humanitarian losses. Mr. Powell later called the episode at the United Nations a mistake, although he maintained that the war succeeded in ridding the world of Iraq’s “terrible dictator.”
During Mr. Powell’s term as Joint Chiefs chairman, his approach to war became known as the Powell Doctrine. It held that the U.S. should commit forces in a conflict only if it has clear and achievable objectives with public support, sufficient firepower and a strategy for ending the war.
Tributes poured in Monday from both parties. The younger Mr. Bush said he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by Mr. Powell’s death.
“He was a great public servant” and “widely respected at home and abroad,” Mr. Bush said. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said he was “deeply saddened” by Mr. Powell’s death.
“General Powell had a remarkably distinguished career, and I was fortunate to work with him. He was a man who loved his country and served her long and well,” Mr. Cheney said in a statement. “Working with him during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I saw first-hand General Powell’s dedication to the United States and his commitment to the brave and selfless men and women who serve our country in uniform.
Former President Barack Obama described Mr. Powell as an “exemplary” patriot and soldier. Like Mr. Biden, he thanked the late general for lifting his electoral fortunes by crossing parties to endorse him in 2008.
“But what impressed me more was how he did it,” Mr. Obama said. “At a time when conspiracy theories were swirling, with some questioning my faith, General Powell took the opportunity to the heart of the matter in a way only he could.”
He recounted that Mr. Powell said of Mr. Obama’s faith, “The correct answer is, ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general, said the news of Mr. Powell’s death left “a hole in my heart.”
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Mr. Austin said while traveling in Europe. “Alma lost a great husband, and the family lost a tremendous father, and I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He has been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me, and I can always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel.”
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the lead Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was saddened to learn of Mr. Powell’s death.
“He served his nation for decades in the United States military and made history as the first black Secretary of State and first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Mr. Rogers said in a statement. “I am praying for his family as they mourn his passing.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem, New York, and grew up in the South Bronx. He attended City College of New York, where he commanded the cadet Army ROTC unit, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in geology and an Army commission as a second lieutenant.
After completing infantry officer training, Lt. Powell was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany. That was where he encountered another soldier in the field: Sgt. Elvis Presley.
“We were in this wooded area north of Frankfurt, and I was driving along in my jeep, and somebody noted that there he was,” Mr. Powell told BBC. “When I walked over to him, he saluted and was very proper, and what struck me was that he looked like just another GI.”
He said he respected the singer for agreeing to serve when his country called.
“It showed he was a patriot and willing to serve as a soldier, and he went back after serving in the Army to a career that became even bigger,” Mr. Powell told BBC.
Mr. Powell was sent to Vietnam in 1962 and was wounded while serving as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion. He returned to Vietnam in June 1968 and was decorated for repeatedly returning to a burning helicopter to rescue others despite being injured himself, the Army said.
He remained in the Army after Vietnam and continued through several important military and government assignments. In 1987, he became national security adviser for Reagan, for whom he organized several summit meetings with other world leaders.
Mr. Powell received his fourth star two years later and was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the first President Bush. He was the first Black and ROTC graduate to have the top military job in the Pentagon. At 52, he was the youngest officer to serve in the position, according to his Pentagon biography.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.