This monument is part of the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area located at 290 Stimson Ave, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027
General Colin Powell is an incredibly popular figure in recent American history and one whose legacy is felt strongly today. A second-generation Jamaican American, GEN Powell was born in Harlem in 1937 and got his start in the Army with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at City College of New York, where he studied Geology. Coming from a humble background, GEN Powell didn’t initially expect to become a distinguished military officer, let alone an internationally influential voice in politics. However, achieving the highest ROTC ranks and awards hinted toward his grand future, and he later explained that he came to believe a military career was one of the only paths in the United States that would allow a Black man to achieve his full potential. Four years after graduation, he would deploy to Vietnam for the first time after his promotion to Captain.
GEN Powell served two tours in Vietnam, which garnered him widespread recognition in the Army and multiple medals including a Purple Heart after he was wounded and a Soldier’s Medal after going back to rescue fellow soldiers from a burning helicopter. Between his tours in Vietnam, GEN Powell was promoted to Major and attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, graduating second in his class out of 1,244 students. Throughout the 1960s, GEN Powell distinguished himself as a leader and especially suited to the administrative workings of the Army as well. However, he was also implicated in a major controversial situation at this time; his unit was one of those involved in the 1968 Mỹ Lai Massacre. GEN Powell was not directly involved in the horrific massacre itself nor the initial cover-up, but he dismissed a letter calling attention to a possible war crime in the area as false, an action that contributed to the delayed official investigation into the Massacre. GEN Powell would express regret for this later in life, but it is worth noting this incident regardless.
GEN Powell was promoted to General in 1979 at the age of 42, the youngest current general at the time, after serving on bases across the globe from South Korea to Washington, D.C. GEN Powell returned to Fort Leavenworth in 1983 as the Director of Combined Arms Combat Development Activity. It was then that he noted on his daily run that the only memorial to the Buffalo Soldiers were the roads named after the 9th and 10th Cavalry. Nevertheless, it would take nearly a decade for GEN Powell, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to finally realize his dream of adequately commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers through significant fundraising efforts. He spoke at the 1992 dedication ceremony about how the Buffalo Soldier statue stands in for more than just the Buffalo Soldiers themselves but symbolizes the centuries of sacrifices made by Black people for the sake of this country in the face of racism. GEN Powell also referred to himself as a “spiritual successor” to the Buffalo Soldiers, honoring them for their efforts in opening opportunities for Black Americans in the military and the United States as a whole.
Throughout the 1980s and up until his retirement, GEN Powell made a name for himself in the field of foreign relations, foreshadowing his transition into a prolific political career. President Ronald Reagan appointed him as the first Black National Security Adviser in 1987, and in 1989, Powell became the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the body of top military leaders tasked with advising the government. In the latter role, under both George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton’s presidencies, GEN Powell was instrumental in guiding U.S. involvement in the Gulf War and crises in Panama, Somalia, and the Balkans. These were the first post-Cold War conflicts the U.S. involved itself in, lending GEN Powell a significant role in setting the example for how the U.S. military should operate in this new era. It was now that he developed the Powell Doctrine, which, building on the Weinberger Doctrine, was one of the most influential military policies of the time. He advocated for diplomacy and restraint when it came to international conflict, in stark contrast to the policies pursued during the Cold War, which focused on “containing communism” at all costs. Most notably, the Powell Doctrine emphasized that the American and international public’s support for military actions is important to consider before following through anything. Overall, GEN Powell’s policies reflected a broad desire to move away from the interventionist mindset that drove the Korean and Vietnam Wars with little regard for the heavy losses of life, favoring instead a mindset that placed greater emphasis on peaceful diplomacy and national safety, saving armed conflict as a “last resort” only.
GEN Powell finally retired from the Army in 1993 as a four-star General and one of the Army’s most popular public figures. Among the many decorations he earned throughout his military career are the Congressional Gold Medal and the first of his two Presidential Medals of Freedom, some of the highest honors that the government can give an individual. Retirement for GEN Powell, though, was more than just the end of his career. It was the start of a new one as well. GEN Powell remained involved in domestic and international issues throughout the 1990s, particularly working with programs focused on uplifting youth. His other accomplishments during this time include earning the Order of Jamaica, being knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and writing a bestselling autobiography in the process. However, it was in 2001 that he took the position that he is best remembered for today; GEN Powell became the first Black Secretary of State.
During his tenure as Secretary of State, GEN Powell proved to be popular yet divisive. While always relatively well-liked at home, his efforts in promoting and justifying the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which included presenting false evidence of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” to the United Nations, garnered him significant international backlash. The U.S. also abandoned the Powell Doctrine entirely during this period and adopted the Bush Doctrine in its place, a decision partly influenced by the fact that some of the Powell Doctrine’s longstanding opponents such as Vice President Dick Cheney were now key players in the Bush administration. GEN Powell, under presidential pressure, announced his resignation as Secretary of State in 2004. What was at first a groundbreaking achievement for GEN Powell and the United States ended up causing him guilt later on, although he ultimately stood by his support for the wars although they betrayed his principles as described in the Powell Doctrine.
Many people expected GEN Powell to carry on with his political career and even aspire to the presidency, but he decided to prioritize his previous work with social organizations such as America’s Promise, focused on youth advocacy, and he gave back to the City College of New York where he first started his military career by serving on its Board of Directors. Eddie Dixon, the artist who sculpted the rest of the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area, completed Fort Leavenworth’s bust of GEN Powell in 2014. GEN Powell himself attended the unveiling ceremony, recalling his presence at the very first Buffalo Soldier ceremony decades earlier. GEN Powell died in 2021 due to complications from Covid-19, but his influence on the United States’ military, politics, and culture as one of the country’s most well-known leaders will certainly endure for years to come.
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