Born: April 5, 1937;

Died: October 18, 2021

GENERAL Colin Powell’s life nearly ended in Vietnam, 58 years ago.

In 1963, as a US Army Captain, he was in Vietnam, an advisor to the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. One night in early April, his new camp came under Vietcong mortar fire. It was just a calling card; the VC did not know the camp’s precise location.

But the ARVN commander’s rash order to return fire inadvertently gave the game away. Suddenly, a mortar round exploded 20 feet above Powell’s head, striking a branch and wounding several men with shrapnel. Powell was unscathed, but it was a close call. “If the round had not hit the branch, it would have hit me, and I almost certainly would have been killed”, he wrote in his autobiography, A Soldier’s Way.

Powell survived Vietnam – he served two decorated combat tours there – and, returning home, took the first steps in a distinguished career that would see him become America’s top soldier, diplomat and national security advisor.

Powell, who has died, aged 84, of complications from Covid-19, was national security advisor to President Reagan for a year, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H W Bush at the time of the first Gulf War, in which US-led forces expelled Iraqi troops from neighbouring Kuwait. He was Secretary of State to the second President Bush at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

He could even, at one time, have himself been President, having flirted in 1995 with the idea of running for office. As the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward would later write, Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey, had topped the bestseller lists. He was “poised at the epicentre of American politics, with stratospheric poll ratings, the Republican nomination nearly his for the asking, and the presidency within reach”.

But, Woodward added, his closest friend had said that he didn’t think Powell “was ready for this”. Furthermore, Powell’s wife, Alma, fearing for his safety if he campaigned for office, had threatened to leave him if he did.

In 2002, Powell sought to get President Bush to go down “the UN route” when dealing with Saddam, and persuaded him to get Security Council agreement about the dangers posed by Iraq, but he recognised that his own career was tarnished by his presentation to the Security Council on February 5, 2003.

He laid out detailed evidence of Saddam’s reserves of chemical and biological weapons. The evidence was widely believed at the time, but it was found to be erroneous, to Powell’s embarrassment.

He would later acknowledge that the presentation was rife with inaccuracies and twisted intelligence provided by others in the Bush administration, and represented “a blot” that will “always be a part of my record.”

He retired as Secretary of State in 2005. He was twice presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1993 the Queen made him an Honorary Commander in the Military Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath – the highest honour that can be conferred upon a non-British person.

His close friend, the former UK Home Secretary, Jack Straw, paid this tribute: “He was an immensely skilled military strategist and diplomat who resolved many potential international flare-ups by dogged negotiation.

“He was also well aware that he had carried a torch for black Americans, managing against all the odds to break through discrimination in the US to achieve the highest offices in the military and the Department of State”.

In his 1995 book, A Soldier’s Way, Powell wrote: “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx and somehow rose to become the National Security Advisor to the President and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff”.

He was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, to Luther Powell and Maud McKoy, both of whom had emigrated to the States from Jamaica. The McKoys and the Powells, he would later write, had bloodlines common to Jamaicans, including African, Scots, English and Irish.

When he was four, the family moved to the South Bronx.

After graduating from high school, he studied geology at the City College of New York and performed well in the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. His stints in Vietnam led him to be critical of the way the war had been fought.

After earning an MBA at George Washington University in 1971 he won a White House Fellowship. He continued to rise through the army and to make his way through the ranks of government; by 1987, a three-star general, he had become national security advisor in the Reagan administration.

Powell would give his name to a doctrine which advised that US military force should be mobilized only with overwhelming numbers, and in situations where victory was near-certain.

In more recent years, Powell, a moderate Republican, became antagonised by the conduct of President Trump, and warned that Trump was dangerous for the country. He endorsed Democrats in recent presidential elections as the GOP swung to the right.