Powell, a retired four-star general who served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the early 1990s, had been treated for Covid at Walter Reed national medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died. He was fully vaccinated against coronavirus but had a compromised immune system having been treated for blood cancer.
Announcing his death, his family said they had lost a “remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American”.
Powell was America’s first Black secretary of state, serving in that role under George W Bush from 2001 to 2005. He rose to the heights of military and diplomatic service from relatively disadvantaged beginnings, having been born in New York City to Jamaican parents and raised in the South Bronx where he was educated through public schools before he entered the army via a college officer training program.
A statement from Joe Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, said they were “deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity” and referred to Powell having “repeatedly broken racial barriers [and] blazing a trail for others”.
Biden further said of Powell: “Over our many years working together – even in disagreement – Colin was always someone who gave you his best and treated you with respect. Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat … having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity … Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong.”
Kamala Harris, the first female and first Black and south Asian US vice-president, said Powell was “an incredible American” who “served with dignity and grace” and she praised Powell as a trailblazing inspiration in “what he did and how he did it”.
He rose to occupy the top military position in the US government as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff between 1989 and 1993. In that role he presided over military crises including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf war in 1990-91.
But it was in the buildup to the contentious invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Powell became a household name. He was the face of the Bush administration’s aggressive attempt to get the world community to back the invasion, based on false claims of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.
In February 2003, as secretary of state, Powell appeared before the UN security council and made categoric claims that the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had biological weapons and was developing nuclear weapons. He said his intelligence was based in part on accounts of unidentified Iraqi defectors.
The invasion went ahead without UN authorisation. The following year the CIA’s own Iraq Study Group released a report that concluded that Hussein had destroyed the last of the country’s weapons of mass destruction a decade previously.
Powell stepped down as secretary of state in November 2004, following Bush’s re-election. He later insisted to reporters that he had tried to warn Bush of the consequences of invading Iraq, but had supported the president when the decision to proceed was taken.
In a statement on Monday, Bush called Powell “a great public servant. He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad.”
Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice-president who was a leading hawk on Iraq, simply said that working with Powell during the first Gulf war had shown him “Powell’s dedication to the United States and his commitment to the brave and selfless men and women who serve our country in uniform. Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many.”
Tony Blair, who as British prime minister also backed the Iraq invasion, called Powell a “towering figure in American military and political leadership over many years. He inspired loyalty and respect … his life stands as a testament not only to dedicated public service but also a strong belief in willingness to work across partisan division in the interests of his country.”
After his time in government Powell remained a hugely influential commentator on US politics and public life. He grew increasingly disillusioned by the Republican party’s rightward drift.
In 2008, despite party rivalries, he endorsed Barack Obama for president and later became one of Donald Trump’s leading critics.
On Monday, Obama said Powell “never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly. But he also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams,” adding that he was “deeply appreciative” that Powell had endorsed him.
Trump pushed a lie that Obama had not been born in the US and, at a time when conspiracy theorists were suggesting Obama was a Muslim, Powell spoke out and said: “The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’”
Powell voted against Trump in 2016 and 2020 and was scathing about Republicans who remained silent or actively embraced Trump’s lies. In January he said he was so disgusted by the insurrection of Trump supporters at the US Capitol that he no longer considered himself a Republican.
Powell, a prostate cancer survivor, was undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells, when he contracted Covid-19.
This blood cancer makes it hard to fight infections, putting patients at increased risk for coronavirus, and less likely to respond to vaccines.
Dr Derry Segev, a transplant surgeon and professor of surgery and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, told the Guardian earlier this month that severely immune-compromised patients sometimes don’t respond to additional mRNA vaccines adequately.
“About 50% of [transplant] patients have no detectable antibody after two doses, and the ones who do have very low levels of antibody. You add a third dose, you get another few percent ultimately back in – but still even after three doses, and we’ve published even after four doses, there are a lot of transplant patients who don’t have good antibody responses.”
“There are extremely rare cases of deaths or hospitalizations among fully vaccinated individuals,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said in a press briefing on Monday. But she emphasized that “an unvaccinated person has a more than 10 times greater risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to a fully vaccinated person”.
Peggy Cifrino, Powell’s chief of staff, told CNN he also had Parkinson’s disease.
Freshman progressive Democratic New York congressman Jamaal Bowman tweeted that Powell was an inspiration to him “as a Black man just trying to figure out the world”.