Colin Powell, America's Top Soldier, Has Taken His Influence from Harlem to the White House

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

President George Bush made the decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia, but it was Gen. Colin L. Powell, administration insiders say, who made up the President's mind. At an early morning White House meeting on Aug. 3, the day after Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait, Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented Bush's options in such a way as to leave no choice at all: The U.S. had to respond with decisive force or give up being a great power.

This was not the first time that Powell, the country's top armed-services officer, had played a critical role in a geopolitical decision. An invasion of Manuel Noriega's Panama was once considered unlikely since Powell's predecessor, Joint Chiefs" Chairman Adm. William Crowe, opposed it. But after Crowe's retirement in October 1989, Powell devised plans for a quick, massive strike. "I certainly agree that we should not go around saying that we are the world's policeman," Powell told a reporter, "but guess who gets called when suddenly someone needs a cop."

Not that Powell is trigger-happy: As the President's national security adviser in 1988, he is credited with disabusing Ronald Reagan of the dream that the contras would ever be able to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. A deal by which Congress cut off military aid to the contras soon followed.

Indeed, the clout Powell acquired during several previous Washington stints led some grumbling officers to write him off as a political general. The naysayers—and they are relatively few—may also resent the fact that Powell, 53, got his officer training not at West Point but in ROTC at New York's City College. Calling him "the complete soldier," Bush last year vaulted Powell over dozens of more senior and conventional candidates when he tapped him to become the youngest Joint Chiefs' Chairman ever and the first black in the post. But Powell has earned his stripes or, more accurately, his stars—all four of them. He served two tours in Vietnam and his 32-year career has included command of 72,000 troops in Germany and later more than a million on the U.S. mainland.

Though Powell likes to say he remains first and foremost an infantryman, "He is not outside politics," says Kim Holmes, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He's an inside player. The country hasn't seen a general like Colin Powell since Eisenhower. He's at home in the field with his men and he's at home with Presidents." Some say he could one day be President. Columnist George Will wrote in 1988 that then-candidate Bush ought to pick Powell as his vice presidential running mate. And Jesse Jackson, whom Powell informally advised during that campaign even while loyally serving Reagan, calls him "presidential material."

His family, however, insists that Powell harbors no political ambitions. "His dedication," says his daughter Linda, "is not to a career but to this country." That dedication involves predawn departures from his Fort Myer, Va., home and 12-hour days at his Pentagon office even in quieter times. But Linda, 25, an aspiring Broadway actress now appearing in an updated version of As You Like It off-off-Broadway, says her father "never sacrificed his family to his career. We never felt that his work was more important than we were." Powell and his wife, Alma, have raised a close-knit brood. Son Michael, 27, whose own Army service was cut short by a serious jeep accident in West Germany in 1987, attends Georgetown Law School; daughter Annemarie is a student at the College of William and Mary. The young Powells can always talk to their dad as he tinkers on one of his ancient Volvos or settles down to watch a favorite Cary Grant or Gregory Peck video.

Powell himself grew up in a home that was similarly warm, if not as affluent. Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants who labored in Manhattan's garment district, he grew up in the impoverished South Bronx, where he learned Yiddish working for a Jewish shopkeeper. "I had a great childhood," he has said. "I had a close family, which provided everything I needed." Yet life in the tenements could not have been easy, and young First Lt. Powell was "wise beyond his years," recalls Col. William Abernathy, Powell's battalion commander long ago at Massachusetts' Fort Devens. "He performed magnificently. He was always thinking and planning ahead."

The lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers now depend in large part on that wisdom and forethought. And those who know Powell best feel there is no better person for the job. "He understands clearly the uses and limitations of military power," says former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. "He recognizes the merits of negotiation and would like to get an acceptable negotiated solution. But he will fight if he has to fight."

—James S. Kunen, Elizabeth Velez, Sandra McElwaine and Tom Nugent in Washington

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