Colin Powell has been one of my personal role models and heroes since the 1990’s. I remember being excited when he was considering running for President in 1996, and I still think he would make an excellent President, better than any one that we’ve had during my lifetime (including the current one). This autobiography, My American Journey, was co-written by Joseph E. Persico and covers his life up until he retired from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is a big book. 22 chapters, divided into 4 sections, each detailing a major period of Powell’s life.
PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS
The book opens with a bang. And I mean that almost literally, as Powell tells about a trip he and his wife Alma took to Jamaica, the land his parents were born, in 1992 and were in a helicopter that suddenly crashed. This is the 2nd helicopter crash that Powell survived during this lifetime (the first one happening in Vietnam, which he describes later). Thankfully the rest of his trip is a lot smoother, as he and Alma are guided around and he’s able to see the humble beginnings of his parents. And it makes him grateful for the risks they took in coming to America to give their children a better life. He then discusses his childhood, growing up in the South Bronx, and the huge impression his parents made on him (mentioning that his mother was a Democrat but his father was a Republican). He also relates his relationship with his older sister, and the surprise when she got engaged to a White man (in 1952), but how both families accepted it. Colin describes himself as an extremely average student. Willing to work hard, but still pretty directionless. After High School he went to New York City College, and decided to join the Army mainly because he knew that after 20 years he’d get a pension. He describes his first few years in the Army, joining only 10 years after it had been officially desegregated, and how he was able to rise through the ranks based on his abilities. The final chapter is primarily dedicated to his first date with Alma, a blind date that both had been pressured into by their friends, and how that courtship developed into a marriage. I hate to note one particular incident that stands out, it’s during Powell’s first overseas appointment, where one day he happened to meet and shake hands with Sargeant Elvis Presley. That’s pretty cool.
PART TWO: SOLDIERING
These chapters deal primarily with his experiences leading up to, during, and right after the Vietnam War. This includes the aforementioned helicopter crash, and his continued rising through the ranks of the army, and the extra responsibilities that he inherited. This section often reads like a military manual, and I’ll admit that I sometimes got lost in all the jargon. Then after the war he was selected as a White House Fellow, or glorified intern as he calls it, during the Nixon White House, which gave him valuable insights into how Washington politics work. After that he was shipped off to Korea, where he began to notice a change in the Army as it slowly changed from draft to all-volunteer, and discipline became more lax as racial tensions between soldiers increased. Powell became determined to change that. And it was in Korea that he earned the nickname among many of his men, “Bro P” (for Brother Powell).
PART THREE: THE WASHINGTON YEARS
This sections deals with his political appointments. Although he’s mostly known for his work under Republican administrations, he says he actually cut his teeth in Washington during the Carter Administration, when he became an assistant to the Secretary of Defense, working in the Pentagon. And his eventual appointment to National Security Adviser for Ronald Reagan. During this section there’s a lot of talk about policy and office politics, which can get a little dry at times. But Powell manages to throw in enough personal anecdotes to keep the reader’s interest. He also discusses several major events that happened, like the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the bombing of Beirut, as well as his encounters with figures like Oliver North. All leading up to his appointment as Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser, where he started to become a public figure himself.
PART FOUR: THE CHAIRMANSHIP
And this section covers the job that, at that time, Powell was most known for what, and what propelled him into the national spotlight. appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George H.W. Bush. Interestingly, he begins the first chapter in this section discussing race and how it relates to politics. He talks about the 1998 Presidential election, and President Bush’s infamous Willie Horton commercial. He flat-out says that he thinks that was a racist move, and that certain Republican strategists had decided that it was worth it to capitalize on racial fears in order to win votes. But he also says:
“I nevertheless tried to keep things in perspective. I had been given responsibility at the highest level in a Republican administration. National Security Advisers to Presidents are not chosen as tokens. The job is real, demanding, and critical. Never in the two years I worked with Ronald Reagan and George Bush did I detect the slightest trace of racial prejudice in their behavior. They led a party, however, whose principle message to Black Americans seemed to be: lift yourself up by your bootstraps. All did not have bootstraps; some did not have boots. I wish Reagan and Bush had shown more sensitivity on this point. I took consolation, nevertheless, in the thought that their confidence in me represented a commitment to the American ideal of advancement by merit.”
Even more telling, he also says:
“I am also aware that, over the years, my career may have given some bigots a safe Black to hide behind: ‘What, me prejudiced? I served with/over/under Colin Powell!’ I have swallowed hard over racial provocations, determined to succeed by surpassing. Had I been more militant, would have been branded a troublemaker rather than a promotable Black? One can never be sure.”
Powell tells the history of the Joint Chiefs, and it is clear that becoming Chairman was something he took as an extremely high honor. But it wasn’t easy. The very day after he got the job, he had to deal with an attempted coup against Manuel Noriega, and whether or not America should get involved. He discusses the operation to overthrow and capture Noriega, and what he thinks they did right and what they did wrong. The he moves on to talking about the fall of the Soviet Union and what this meant to the American military. His occasional clashes with Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense (who was the man that personally recommended Powell, over more senior officers, for the Chairmanship), and Vice President Dan Quayle. Almost two whole chapters are dedicated to the first Persian Gulf War, which is pretty exciting stuff to read. Near the end of the 2nd chapter Powell gives some more insights into his thoughts on race:
“I have lived in and risen in a White-dominated society and a White-dominated profession, but not by denying my race, not by seeing it as a chain holding me back or an obstacle to be overcome. Others may use my race against me, but I will never use it against myself. My Blackness has been a source of pride, strength, and inspiration, and so has my being an American. I started out believing in an America where anyone, given equal opportunity, can succeed through hard work and faith. I still believe in that America.”<
Then he discusses the 1992 Presidential election, and Bush's defeat by Bill Clinton. And how afterwards he and his wife Alma were invited to spend the weekend at Camp David with George and Barbara Bush, establishing a close friendship between the two couples that went beyond politics. He also discusses his first meeting with Bill Clinton, and the controversy over Clinton's initial pledge to end the ban on homosexuals in the military, leading to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Powell also discusses the criticism he received directly for his position on that, as many compared the ban on homosexuals to the segregation of Blacks. Then he gets to his retirement and adjustment to civilian life, including a humorous story about running out of gas on the freeway twice in one day. And talks about flying to South Africa to witness Nelson Mandela's inauguration. And then, since it was a huge question at the time, he discusses his political views and possibility of running for office, ultimately categorizing himself as “a fiscal conservative with a social conscious.”
While his life has continued to be eventful since this book concluded, with his term as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush and the start of the 2nd Iraq War, My American Journey still provides many compelling insights and is a fascinating look at the life of a great American hero.