Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Colin L. Powell (2001–2005): Secretary of State

Colin Powell, President George W. Bush's choice to become the nation's first African American secretary of state, was born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants in 1937. He earned his B.A. in geology from the City College of New York in 1958. During his undergraduate studies, Powell joined the college's Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC), leading the precision drill team and rising to the highest possible rank, cadet colonel. Through ROTC, Powell earned a postgraduate commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He served first in West Germany and then did two tours in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded.

Returning to the United States, Powell completed graduate studies at George Washington University in 1971 and then served from 1972 to 1973 in the Office of Management and Budget as a White House fellow. Powell served in South Korea from 1973 to 1974, graduated in from the National War College in 1976, and held command positions in Kentucky, Colorado, and Kansas.

From 1979 to 1981, Powell worked in the Carter administration as an executive assistant to the secretary of energy and as senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense.

During the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, Powell served on the Defense Department's transition team and from 1983 to 1986 acted as military assistant to the secretary of defense. In 1987, he returned to West Germany as commanding general of the Fifth Corps in Frankfurt. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Washington to work for, and then head, the National Security Council.

In 1989, Powell was named chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, a position in which he exercised substantial influence over the course of the Gulf War. He retired from the military in 1993.

In nominating Powell as secretary of state, President Bush plucked Powell from America's Promise, a foundation that directs its resources toward helping the nation's young people.

Colin Powell announced his resignation after the 2004 election. Bush nominated Condoleezza Rice to succeed him. Rice was confirmed by the Senate on January 26, 2005.