- - Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The death of warrior-statesman Colin Powell this week threw into relief his remarkable public career and historic times, from his humble origins in the Bronx to his place in the halls of power at the transformative close of the Cold War era.

When a major figure dies, historians have a lot to think about as they weigh the person’s influence on events or how events shaped the individual. They must also weigh accomplishments against failures.

In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Jeffrey Engel reflects on the legacy of a man who once was one of the most respected, admired and trusted figures in American life.

“Colin Powell was in many ways the embodiment of the American dream,” said Mr. Engel, who is the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

“He was the American, post-WWII story. You can map American history onto his life, and vice-versa.”

As many obituaries have pointed out, Mr. Powell was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, an Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

In the former post, Mr. Powell planned the U.S.-led military operation to expel Iraq’s forces from Kuwait in 1991, employing what became known as the Powell Doctrine.

In the latter, his reputation as a credible, trustworthy figure suffered irreparable harm after he delivered a grossly misleading presentation about weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations in 2003, weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“What do we choose to remember first about people?” said Mr. Engel, reflecting on the task of historians who will document the lives and times of influential figures.

“Colin Powell was throughout his career a deal maker, a peace maker, a moderate on all kinds of issues … and when we look back on 2003, we don’t think of Powell as a hawk pushing for war. But we do think of him as the person best positioned to stop the war. That’s perhaps an impossible burden,” said Mr. Engel, the author and editor of “Into the Desert: Reflections on the Gulf War.”

By 2003, the position of secretary of state had been eclipsed in power and influence by the secretary of defense. Mr. Powell had reached the height of his own prestige and influence a decade earlier, when polls showed Americans across the political spectrum may have preferred him as their next president.

For more of Mr. Engel’s insights on Colin Powell’s life and legacy, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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