Colin Powell’s legacy

Historian Mary Frances Berry and Perry World House Visiting Fellow Alice Hunt Friend share thoughts on Powell’s impact on and off the battlefield.

Colin Powell, wearing full military garb and standing at a brown wooden podium with a microphone, gestures to his right, sweeping his arm that direction
Colin Powell, seen here making a speech during his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died this week at the age of 84. (Image: Robert D. Ward)

Colin Powell, the soldier-turned-statesman who became the first Black U.S. secretary of state, national security advisor and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died this week.

“Colin Powell was, first of all, an example of a successful Black man, a child of immigrants in the United States who made good. This made him a role model for so many other Black [people],” says Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought (emerita). She is the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and former assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, whose time in Washington overlapped with Powell’s.

“He was also likeable, an affable, calm-on-the-surface Black man, who no matter what slights he endured, managed to appear non-threatening. His persona inspired the confidence of powerful white people who gave him increasing positions of responsibility.”

In looking at Powell’s legacy on policy, strategy and the military, Penn Today also reached out to Alice Hunt Friend, a Perry World House Visiting Fellow who has served in several roles at the Pentagon, to share her thoughts in a Q & A. Most recently, Friend was the deputy chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense. Friend researches the role of civilians in civil-military relations and emerging military capabilities.

In light of the outcomes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, how does the Powell Doctrine hold up?

The Powell Doctrine, like most foreign and security policy, should be understood in the context of its time and the experiences of those who promoted it. It was most essentially a product of the war in Vietnam, a military policy that took a variety of shapes across multiple presidencies with profoundly destructive and demoralizing results. So Powell, a Vietnam veteran, essentially promoted a list of criteria for the use of force designed to be a brake on myopia and impulse. In that sense, it’s perfectly applicable to almost any debate about the use of force. It asks policymakers to reflect on the likely duration and outcomes of military operations, the resources required, the domestic and international politics of the policy, and so forth.

But it also reflects a time when the United States saw the use of force as optional. The underlying assumption of Powell’s Doctrine is that the U.S. doesn’t have to use the military. Given the kinds of advanced economic and technological competition we face today, I don’t think absolutely free choice will always be a useful assumption. Related to that, Powell was developing this at a time when conventional force was the overwhelmingly likely form of engagement. Military and security competition today takes place in domains and with capabilities that mix military and civilian forms of power. What would be the exit strategy for a cyberwar? So as general prompts for reflection, I think his questions remain useful, but they can’t necessarily guide policy choices today.  

In your opinion, what were his greatest achievements as a statesman and a soldier?

His leadership during the Persian Gulf War was decisive, and our military success along with the discipline we showed about international legitimacy and limited objectives was a model for the use of force to maintain international order. He was also a secretary of state beloved by the bureaucracy, which is no mean feat, and I think his greatest achievement truly is the impact he had on the people who conduct our foreign policy. He was in Washington for so long that he helped grow multiple generations of public servants, and those I know who worked for him directly always talk about his kindness and humor. Washington can be a cold place. Leading with warmth and patience ripples outward for generations. I think especially for Black Americans—really, for all Americans—that Colin Powell was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of state were enormously inspiring milestones. 

What were his greatest failures as a statesman and a soldier?

Anyone in public life for that long and who clearly cares so deeply about the country will nevertheless commit errors, some large. What springs to mind for most is his public defense of the invasion of Iraq at the United Nations, a part in that war for which he publicly atoned. If I could perfect his service, I would wipe away two other incidents: At the very end of the 1992 Bush-Clinton presidential election, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled ‘Why Generals Get Nervous’ that defended President Bush’s military policies and advocated against intervention in the former Yugoslavia. It was a very political thing to do and therefore an inappropriate thing for any military officer to do. He also opposed allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military, leaving us with the pointlessly destructive ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. But there, Powell showed a rare ability to reconsider his thinking and change his mind. He later became an advocate for the repeal of that policy. 

How will history view Powell as a military leader? 

For the most part, after his Vietnam deployments Powell’s military career was marked by being an aide to high-level officials and a strategist. While still a three-star general he became President Reagan’s national security advisor, and President Bush subsequently chose him to become chairman. He was one of the major architects of post-Cold War defense posture and guided the joint force through the Persian Gulf War. 

If you could drill it down to one thing, what is the most important thing to remember about Powell’s legacy? What's the biggest takeaway from the life he lived?

Service before self.