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'Fresh Air' remembers Colin Powell, former secretary of state

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Colin Powell. He died today of complications of COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated. Powell was the first African American national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. During his military career, he served two tours of duty in Vietnam and served in Korea and Germany. During the Carter administration, Powell worked in the Pentagon. In the Reagan administration, he was top military aid to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and then became national security adviser. He was President George H.W. Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As Eric Schmidt wrote in Powell's New York Times obituary, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell was the architect of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq. Years later, in 2003, while serving as President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, he was the odd man out, fighting internally with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In Powell's 2003 speech at the U.N., he helped pave the way for the U.S. to go to war in Iraq. He came to regret that speech. Today he was praised by politicians in the Republican and Democratic parties. I spoke with Powell in 1995 after the publication of his memoir. It was two years after he'd retired from the military.

At your retirement ceremony, you said, the Army has been my home. The Army has been my life. I am what I am because the Army takes care of its own. And in your memoir, you say that you found a home first in ROTC. What appealed to you about ROTC?

COLIN POWELL: When I entered the City College of New York, I was just short of my 17th birthday, just barely a kid. And I really had no goal in life at that point. I was just a street kid. And after bouncing around college for six months, changing my major, still unsure, I came upon the ROTC program. And I was embraced by the warmth of that fraternity in ROTC. I liked the structure. I liked the discipline. I liked the uniform that made me distinctive. I was suddenly not just a block kid. I was somebody in a uniform. I fell in love with it at that point. It was a love affair with the army that didn't even end upon retirement two years ago.

GROSS: In your memoir, you write, a certain ambivalence has always existed among African Americans about military service. Why should we fight for a country that for so long did not fight for us, that, in fact, denied us our fundamental rights? Did you ever feel that ambivalence yourself? And you served through the '60s and the civil rights movement.

POWELL: No. I never felt that ambivalence. I'm the heir of a proud legacy of Black soldiers who went before me, the buffalo soldiers of the post-Civil War period, the Tuskegee Airmen. And what was put into me was that we served and sacrificed at a time when our nation was not prepared to serve us or sacrifice for us. But we made it. We got ahead. With each passing conflict, we demonstrated that we could do in combat just what our white brothers and sisters could do. And, Powell, you better take advantage of that. You are not to grind your teeth about it. Don't carry a chip on your shoulder. We did this to put you in the position you are now in. And you will not be forgiven if you don't take advantage of our sacrifice. And that's the way I always approached it.

GROSS: Your first tour of Vietnam was late '62 and then through '63. And while you were in Vietnam that year, your wife was living in the city of her birth, Birmingham.

POWELL: Yep.

GROSS: That was during a period of church bombings and when authorities were using fire hoses and police dogs to try to stop the civil rights movement. You write your father-in-law sat with a shotgun on his lap to protect his home and his family. Did you ever wish that you were fighting - that you were able to fight in the civil rights movement at home instead of having to fight in a war abroad that you became - a war you became increasingly disillusioned with as the years went on?

POWELL: Yeah. Much of what was happening in Birmingham and in the South during that period never penetrated into the jungles of Vietnam. There were no newspapers. There were no news broadcasts. You would get some news every couple of weeks. And my father-in-law and my wife obviously tried to keep the worst of it from me so as not to cause me any problem. When I came home, I, of course, saw it in spades and learned about my father-in-law with his guns, and it disturbed me. And I was deeply committed to the civil rights movement, but the choice I had made at that point was to be a soldier and to work within the system and to do the best I could.

Yeah, I guess there will always be a lingering feeling that I was enjoying the benefits of an integrated society while Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King and Mr. Abernathy and Joe Lowery and John Lewis and all the other civil rights leaders were out there taking risks every day to make it a better country and also to make things better for me. But as I say in the book, we all had to serve in some way. And the way in which I served was to take advantage of the opportunities that were being created for me and never, never forget that people sacrificed for me and never, never turn my back on my own heritage or origins.

GROSS: How did the civil rights movement, which was challenging the establishment - the white establishment in the United States, affect challenges to authority in the military when you were there?

POWELL: We did everything we could to give all of our youngsters a sense of being equal, a sense of being family. And as a result of our commitment during that period, we came out of the mid-'70s as the most integrated institution in American society with a model that is still being talked about, a model that we can be proud of.

GROSS: At what point did you start to become skeptical of the war in Vietnam?

POWELL: When I first went over, arriving in Vietnam on Christmas Day of 1962 as an adviser, I was all charged up, a young 25-year-old captain there to stop communism, not truly understanding the roots of the conflict, the nationalist roots of the conflict. By the end of that first year of tromping through the jungle and watching our strategy at work, I started to sense that it was going to be a far more difficult task and we'd imagined. And it was a task that involved more than just stopping communism. We were supporting a regime in South Vietnam that did not really fit the model we had in mind of a democratic government, and we were fighting a very, very determined enemy.

By the time I went back in 1968, the regime hadn't improved. And it was clear that we were fighting an enemy that was prepared to match us man for man and prepared to accept enormous suffering. And we were not prepared to suffer equally, and we were not prepared to use all the resources at our disposal to achieve a victory. And so there was a policy-strategy mismatch. There was a mismatch in what we were trying to do militarily and what we were trying to achieve politically. And we all started to become disillusioned with the war at that time, and, of course, we saw that the American people were rapidly becoming disillusioned. And yet the war went on for another several years with many, many thousands of Americans killed.

GROSS: You were described in the New Republic as the prototype of the political general, determined never to let themselves be drawn again into a politician's war, placing new emphasis on learning the rules of the game in Washington and playing it well. Do you agree with that description?

POWELL: Well, I've been characterized by many things - not quite sure if a political general is a condemnation. It certainly isn't intended as a compliment. All I've tried to do over the years is to serve wherever I was assigned to the best of my ability. And I have had political assignments over the years because people thought I did those rather well, and I did whatever I was asked to do to the best of my ability.

It's not a never-again mentality. It's a mentality that says we owe the American people and we owe our political leaders our best advice on how we go to war and how we use the lives of the sons and daughters of the American people. And if we don't provide that advice, whether it is welcome advice or not welcome advice, then we are not doing our job as senior military advisers to the president and stewards of the lives of the sons and daughters of the American people.

GROSS: That was an excerpt of my interview with Colin Powell, recorded in 1995 after the publication of his memoir. He died today. He was 84.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Billy Porter. He starred in the musical "Kinky Boots" and the FX series "Pose." His new memoir is about growing up Black and gay in a church community that insisted he was damned and with a stepfather who sexually abused him. His singing voice was his salvation, but it was still hard to fit in on Broadway and in the music industry. I hope you'll join us.

Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST MIDNIGHT")

BILLY PORTER: (Singing) It's the last midnight. It's the last wish. It's the last midnight. Soon it will be boom, squish. Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow - did you? Had to get your prince, had to get your cow, have to get your wish - doesn't matter how. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. It's the last midnight. It's the boom, splat, nothing but a vast midnight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.