This Day in the Law
September 21

Senate Confirms Powell as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman (1989)

On September 21, 1989, the U.S. Senate confirmed Colin Powell as the first African American to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff as Chairman. President George H. Bush had nominated Powell and the Senate confirmed his nomination to the U.S.’s highest military commander.

The successes and failures of the U.S. military have often depended on the successes or failures of its joint military operations. In other words, the better the military branches work together the better a war effort tends to go. However, the U.S. did not develop a formal joint military operation until the middle of the 20th century.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill established the Combined Chiefs of Staff to direct the Allies’ war effort. But the United States had no official joint military operations of its own. So, the U.S. adopted an informal group of high commanders to lead the U.S. through W.W.II.

After W.W.II, Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947 which formally established the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In short, the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a board composed of the chiefs of four out of the five U.S. military branches, including the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy. The Coast Guard does not have a member on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest ranking military commander and serves as the main military adviser to the President, Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council.

Colin Powell, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the U.S. in a swift victory over Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Powell retired as chairman in 1993 and many believed he would run for President. However, Powell decided not to run for President and instead toured the country promoting his autobiography, My American Journey.

At the end 2000, George W. Bush appointed Powell as the African American U.S. Secretary of State. So, in the span of a little over ten years Powell became the first African American to act as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense.