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Colin Powell: From Military Leader to Career Diplomat

Aired October 13, 2001 - 10:30   ET



COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: Acts of war have been committed against the American people, and we will respond accordingly. Our spirits will not be broken. We will find out who is responsible for this, and they will pay for it.

ANDREA KOPPEL, HOST (voice-over): Secretary of State Colin Powell has been called up for a battle of epic proportions.

POWELL: It is a much more difficult enemy to find and fix, but that's what we're working on, finding them and fixing them.

KOPPEL: Powell has served three previous administrations, every president since Jimmy Carter, accumulating four stars and becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country's top military leader.

But now the career soldier is a diplomat. On the day of the attacks, Powell was in South America to promote democracy in the region and curb drug trafficking. He rushed back to Washington, where he immediately became the voice and face of the administration's new war on terrorism, appearing on five morning newscasts the next day.

POWELL: This has got to be a full-scale assault, not just by the United States, but by the civilized community against terrorism.

KOPPEL: This was not the first time Powell's stature and experience have helped bolster the Bush administration. As the first member of the new cabinet to be announced...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... and ask him to become the 65th secretary of state of the United States of America.

KOPPEL: Powell gave instant credibility to the president-elect, the candidate who lost the popular vote and who lacked experience in international affairs.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Powell is a man of independent stature. He has built a reputation based on the force of his personality. He has what the military folks call a command presence.

KOPPEL: Though the courtship between Bush and Powell was long, the honeymoon was brief.

JOHANNA MCGEARY, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": He went through a very rugged initiation period, where every time Colin Powell stepped to the right, the administration was stepping to the left. He advocated positions that a lot of members of the Republican Party thought were too soft.

KOPPEL: Just a week before the terrorist attacks, "Time" magazine wondered, "Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?" and declared him the odd man out.

MCGEARY: For a time, Colin Powell was finding himself in the position where in the minds of lots of other people, he wasn't the preeminent voice of American foreign policy. Diplomats abroad would listen to what Colin Powell had to say, and then turn around and ask, Well, what does Vice President Cheney think? What does Defense Secretary Rumsfeld think? What does national security adviser Rice think?

KOPPEL: But in the wake of the terror attacks, Powell's 35 years of military experience and crisis management are clearly in high demand. As a policy maker, Powell is seen as a steady hand, and the White House benefits when one of the most admired men in the nation uses his mythic status to reassure the public.

POWELL: We cannot be a people who walk around terrified. We're Americans. We don't walk around terrified.

KOPPEL: Powell's journey to the corridors of power in Washington began in the tough streets of New York. He was born in 1937, and his parents soon settled in the Bronx, where they managed to keep their kids out of the trouble that tempted so many others.

POWELL: Frankly, it was a very fine upbringing that I received in the South Bronx. We had our problems of drug and crimes, and none of our parents were very, very rich. In fact, they were all quite poor.

KOPPEL: His parents, immigrants from Jamaica, worked in the garment district, his mother, Maude, a seamstress, his father, Luther, a shipping clerk foreman. They had come to New York with a dream, determined their children would have a bright future.

MARILYN BERNS, SISTER: We came from a kind of family that raised you and sort of programmed you for success. You know, the expectations were there that you would go forth and achieve.

KOPPEL: Colin and his sister, Marilyn, were taught that education was the key to success. But all the way through high school, young Colin was hardly passionate about school.

BERNS: Oh, well, I think everybody knows that, you know, his studies were pretty average while he was in school.

KOPPEL: But the melting pot of 1940s New York educated him in other ways. POWELL: And I learned a great deal about myself on the streets of New York. I grew up with people and went to school with people of all different ethnic origins and backgrounds and religions.

GENE NORMAN, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: The totality of a neighborhood that lets you see the world through many different eyes.

TONY GRANT, CHILDHOOD FRIEND: He prides himself on his ability to speak Yiddish.

NORMAN: Well, I don't believe a word of that.

GRANT: Well, he says it. But we all picked up a little Yiddish, we all picked up a little German, Spanish, Italian.

JOSEPH PERSICO, CO-AUTHOR, "MY AMERICAN JOURNEY": Colin Powell had very little sense of being a member of an oppressed minority when he was growing up because, as he put it, he lived among Italians, Jews, Poles, Puerto Ricans. Everybody was a member of a minority.

KOPPEL: Although racism was a fact of life in the '40s and '50s, his parents refused to let their children think of themselves as second-class citizens.

POWELL: My parents kept telling me, and the adults in my life kept telling me, Don't worry about that. Don't care what people say about you or how they point to you and think you're different. You're not different.

KOPPEL: His parents expected him to go to college, and so he did, to CCNY, the City College of New York.

POWELL: They let me in with my bad grades, and I stayed there for four and a half years, it was a four-year course, with bad grades.

KOPPEL: But despite the bad grades, he found his calling.

When the story of Colin Powell continues, the sorry student discovers a reason to stay in school.

POWELL: And now I'm the favorite son, the most famous person who ever graduated from CCNY, and they give me all kinds of honors. And I smile, because they were sure anxious to see me go 35 years ago.




KOPPEL (voice-over): After squeaking through high school, the kid from the South Bronx took his C average to CCNY, City College of New York. Clearly, academics did not excite him. But something else did.

POWELL: I found something that I liked at CCNY. It was ROTC. I liked the discipline and structure of the military. I felt somewhat distinctive wearing a uniform. I hadn't been distinctive in much else.

GRANT: He used to love pacing up and down the block, practicing his marching, calling cadence out to himself, he thoroughly enjoyed it. So it was without question that Colin was going to be a career man.

KOPPEL: Powell's military career began in 1958, when he received his bachelor's degree in geology and a commission in the United States Army. Colin was now Second Lieutenant Powell.

BERNS: My mother thought, Oh, well, this is nice, when he graduates, he'll go in the Army for a few years, and he'll come out and get a job.

KOPPEL: Little did she know her son was in it for the long haul.

POWELL: The Army was the way out for me, the way out of the city. It was an opportunity when there weren't many other opportunities for young blacks, even young blacks who had completed college.

KOPPEL: But when Powell reported for training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he ran into an unexpected roadblock -- segregation.

PERSICO: Now, the way Colin Powell something like this -- yes, he's exasperated, he's enraged, but he's not going to let it destroy him. As he put it to me, best of all, "I was not going to let other people's opinions of me become my opinion of myself."

KOPPEL: The young man who had been programmed for success since early childhood would not be discouraged.

PERSICO: He told me once how one of his officers early in his career had said, "Lieutenant Powell, you're the best black lieutenant in the U.S. Army." Powell was not satisfied with that. He didn't want to see this artificial color barrier, and he said, "I was determined to become the best lieutenant in the U.S. Army."

KOPPEL: In 1962, the 25-year-old was shipped to Vietnam. Initially excited to serve in combat, he soon became frustrated that decision makers in Washington had not clearly defined the mission and had no plan for getting out.

POWELL: I came away from that experience with a belief that if you're going to send young men and women into harm's way, you should make sure they have a clear purpose that they are fighting for, they understand that purpose, the American people understand it, and the American people are supporting them in what they do.

KOPPEL: The United States Powell returned to was very different from the one he had left. Anti-war protests, the civil rights movement, violence was everywhere. The only calm in the storm was on the home front. The newly promoted Captain Powell had married Alma Vivian Johnson in 1963. Over the years, Alma would hold down the fort during her husband's many absences, making sure the growing Powell clan had everything they needed.

PERSICO: Alma Powell accepted that this was the life this man loved and that he had a great deal to give to it, and she accepted her sometimes very difficult role as a mother on her own, and also an Army wife who was expected to be charming, tactful, and entertaining.

She carried out that role rather beautifully for 35 years, and I think part of his rise is due to the fact that he had a suitable wife.

KOPPEL: With his family in good hands, Colin Powell concentrated on his career. The next big push came in 1972, when Powell's commanding officers ordered him to apply for the White House Fellows program.

POWELL: The beautiful part about the Army is that they were always, they were always giving me something that was beyond me. They were always testing me. And by being pushed, I grew fast.

KOPPEL: Out of 1,500 applicants, he was accepted, and once again rose to the challenge.

FRANK CARLUCCI, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You gave him a project, it got done, it got done effectively. It was easy to spot him as a rising talent at that time.

KOPPEL: Then another golden opportunity. Powell was named military assistant to the secretary of defense, and was exposed to decision making at the highest levels.

POWELL: At some point in my career, I realized I was doing well enough to become a general.

KOPPEL: So Colin Powell left Washington for an assignment at Fort Carson, Colorado, one that would put him within reach of that once-unthinkable goal. But the newly minted general would not stay away from the capital for long.

CARLUCCI: He didn't want to come back, but he had Ronald Reagan call him, and he agreed to come back.

KOPPEL: It was an offer he couldn't refuse, deputy national security adviser. He was later promoted to national security adviser, a first for an African-American.

When George Bush became president, he kept Powell close by, naming him to the highest military rank in the country, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Powell exploded onto the scene in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell was initially reluctant to commit U.S. troops. But eventually he became one of the administration's most trusted spokesmen when the assault on Saddam Hussein's army finally came.

POWELL: Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it. KOPPEL: When the war was over, Powell had become a national hero. Powell's term extended into the Clinton administration, where he again argued against military action, this time in Bosnia. Even though ethnic cleansing reached gruesome proportions, the mission did not fit the parameters of the Powell doctrine.

POWELL: I have been characterized as the reluctant warrior. Guilty. But I follow in a long tradition of American generals who have always been reluctant warriors.

KOPPEL: In 1993, Powell retired to write his memoirs with a reported $6 million advance. Published in late '95, the promotional tour was mobbed.


POWELL: I'll take a question or two...

SAM DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: General, is this really the start of a book tour, or the start of a presidential campaign?

POWELL: Today is the beginning of a book tour, Mr. Donaldson, and...

DONALDSON: And tomorrow?

POWELL: ... and tomorrow, we'll continue to promote the book, but at the same time, we'll be traveling around the country meeting many Americans and answering any questions they may wish to put to me.


KOPPEL: With both Democrats and Republicans courting him, Colin Powell weighs his options, next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.





QUESTION: The latest CNN poll has you right now ahead of both President Clinton and Senator Dole. How does that make you feel?

POWELL: I'm not worrying about the polls or paying attention to polls right now.


KOPPEL (voice-over): With a runaway best seller and sky-high ratings in the polls, Colin Powell in late 1995 was at a crossroads.

POWELL: Question I faced was, Should I enter politics and seek the presidency of the United States? KOPPEL: But it was no secret that Alma Powell, his staunchest supporter for 33 years, did not want him to run. After months of public speculation and weeks of private anguish, he concluded he lacked the passion to run a successful presidential campaign.

POWELL: The passionate commitment that despite my every effort, I do not yet have for political life.

KOPPEL: But he now clearly committed to a party, the Republicans.

POWELL: I'm very impressed by what the Republican Party is trying to do right now, trying to put the nation on a better fiscal balance, trying to bring government under control and make government smaller, trying to put more money back into the pocket of individual taxpayers.

KOPPEL: But at the 1996 Republican Convention, Powell sounded like a Democrat. Keep abortion rights, end racial discrimination, and reform welfare for everyone.


POWELL: We have to make sure that reduced government spending doesn't single out the poor and the middle class. Corporate welfare, welfare for the wealthy, must be first in line for elimination.


KOPPEL: After the Republicans lost, Powell established America's Promise and became its fund raiser-in-chief, recruiting corporations and volunteers to help children from poor backgrounds like his own.

But his retreat from politics was only temporary. At the 2000 Republican Convention, staged to showcase the party's new inclusive image, Powell once again blasted the conservatives on affirmative action.


POWELL: Some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education. But you hardly hear a whimper when it's affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests. It doesn't work.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I, Colin Powell...

POWELL: I, Colin Powell...

(END VIDEO CLIP) KOPPEL: Despite his differences with the party's right wing, Powell's credibility with the public made him a natural choice for the new Bush administration. The State Department staff literally cheered when Powell took command.

POWELL: Thank you very much.

KOPPEL: Expectations were high. But his tempered approach frequently clashed with other members of the president's national security team.

BIDEN: In this administration, the overwhelming part of the foreign policy establishment is very hard right movement, right conservatives.

KOPPEL: Powell advocated caution and coalitions. The prevailing view in the administration was that the victor in the cold war could impose its will unilaterally. When President Bush said he wanted U.S. troops out of the NATO peacekeeping force in the Balkans, Powell argued for supporting NATO. On negotiations with North Korea to stop developing long-range missiles, Powell said he would pick up where the Clinton administration left off.

The White House said no, at least not right away.

POWELL: As I have kidded others in saying, I got a little too far forward on my skis.

KOPPEL: And on the international treaty to stop global warming, the White House pulled the plug on U.S. support without consulting Powell.

BIDEN: There seems to be a real distrust among movement conservatives, the right wing of the Republican Party in control of this administration, real distrust for Powell.

KOPPEL: But his supporters said Powell fights the battles he considers most important, and Powell has ultimately turned many of the policy decisions his way.

RICHARD ARMITAGE, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: It seems to me you ought to view Secretary Powell not as a 100-yard sprinter but as a marathoner.

KOPPEL: What may be the toughest race of his career began September 11. The United States was in a new kind of war, attacked by an enemy that, for the price of a few plane tickets, had acquired guided missiles.

POWELL: It may well be that the diplomatic efforts, political efforts, the legal, financial, other efforts, may be just as effective against that kind of an enemy as would military force.

KOPPEL: It is less a war fought with tanks and fleets than with spies and diplomats. And now the retired general, who was sometimes considered too cautious, too reluctant a warrior, is a central player, using words as his weapon to cultivate allies and disarm his critics.


KOPPEL (on camera): Secretary Powell...

POWELL: Andrea?

KOPPEL: ... it sounds as if what you're saying is that up until now, you've been hearing very positive statements, but that now's sort of the time to put their money where their mouth is?

POWELL: I wouldn't characterize it quite that crudely, Andrea.

KOPPEL: Sorry, I'm not a diplomat.

POWELL: Some say neither am I.


MCGEARY: One of the things that people have always felt about Colin Powell is that he is a man of such great promise that what you want to see is that that promise is used to do great things, and if he has ever had a chance to show that to us, he has a chance to show it to us now.





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