A 1941 West Point graduate, Gen. Rowny built his reputation as a seasoned combat officer. He commanded battalions in Italy during World War II, helped Gen. Douglas MacArthur plan the 1950 landing on the Inchon beachhead during the Korean War and led a regiment in brutal winter combat. He later championed arming helicopters for battle, creating a sky cavalry that he helped implement in Vietnam for counterinsurgency operations. And he rose to quasi-diplomatic positions with NATO during the Cold War.
Dubbed a "scholar-general" by the New York Times, he began studying the Russian language and Soviet negotiating techniques at Yale University in the late 1940s — experience that positioned him to play a meaningful role in U.S. nuclear policymaking.
Gen. Rowny, who worked in arms control under every president from Richard M. Nixon to George H.W. Bush, became one of the most outspoken and controversial members of the U.S. team sent to Geneva to work on agreements over strategic, or nuclear, arms.
He spent much of the 1970s as the Joint Chiefs of Staff's representative to the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, known as SALT II. In the ideological battle over negotiating positions and tactics, he worked with proponents of increased military spending — including future President Ronald Reagan, defense official Paul H. Nitze and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.) — to defeat the SALT II treaty.
The agreement imposed restrictions on the construction and deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles and slowed the proliferation of multiple nuclear warheads on those missiles.
Notable deaths in 2017
Gen. Rowny was among those arguing that SALT II endangered American security and lacked enforceable verification provisions, allowing the Soviets, in essence, to cheat and bolster their insatiable drive for nuclear superiority.
He said the Russians retained supposed first-strike capabilities with the potential to destroy the American land-based missile force. The theory was adopted by many neoconservatives at the time, but many other scholars and specialists viewed the claims as exaggerated or dubious.
Gen. Rowny rebuked then-President Jimmy Carter and his fellow arms control colleagues for what he regarded as their weakness in the face of the Soviet threat. Americans were too pragmatic and "success oriented," he said, looking for a fast win against a ruthless adversary trained in long-term thinking.
"My problem is that the Soviets come from a country that has a lot of patience and plays chess," he told the Associated Press in 1982. "I come from a country that has a lot of quarters and plays Pac-Man."
Gen. Rowny said he was well aware of his public image as "an inflexible hawk." He looked and sounded the part, with his craggy voice and imposing, broad-shouldered physique. He earned the esteem of conservatives with his unyielding conviction and his ability during arduous meetings in Geneva to "out-stonewall the master stonewallers," journalist Strobe Talbott wrote in his 1984 book about nuclear arms control, "Deadly Gambits."
"Rowny hoped to impress on the Soviets, and the world, that he was a principled loner who had fought the good fight against the odds and against the soft-liners for years," Talbott said in his book. "He liked to remind people, including the Soviets, that he was of Polish descent; the implication was that he had a considerable dose of anti-Russianism in his blood."
Carter and Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev signed the SALT II agreement in June 1979. Two weeks later, Gen. Rowny resigned from the Army, citing dismay with what he considered Carter's zeal for a "treaty at any price." It was in those next few months that Gen. Rowny had perhaps his greatest influence.
Working with the Committee on the Present Danger, a powerful anti-Soviet advocacy organization, Gen. Rowny testified before congressional committees and lobbied behind the scenes to kill SALT II. In the general's estimation, Carter was making too many concessions that would gave the Soviets a lopsided advantage in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles and their long-range Backfire bomber.
The Senate declined to ratify it amid widespread concerns over its potential military and economic impact, and Carter withdrew the treaty from consideration in December 1979, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
Gen. Rowny returned to government service after Reagan's election to the White House in 1980. He regarded Reagan as a kindred spirit and was ecstatic by the new president's promises of building up a defense posture to convey strength that would lead to leverage in Geneva.
In 1982, Gen. Rowny was named chief arms control negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START. But little progress was made after Reagan introduced plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative program, a land- and space-based antimissile system popularly known as Star Wars. Talks went dormant for more than a year after nuclear-capable Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were positioned in Europe in 1983 to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles.
Meanwhile, Gen. Rowny created political headaches for his superiors in Washington. A memorandum featuring his criticisms of arms-control colleagues surfaced in the media in 1983. Gen. Rowny later said the memo, which he dismissed as "talking points prepared for me," was leaked to newspapers by a "disgruntled secretary."
Two years later, when Reagan made another push for arms talks with the newly installed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Gen. Rowny was replaced by former senator John Tower (R-Tex.). Gen. Rowny spent the next five years — under Reagan and then Bush — as special adviser to the president on arms control. He said his influence waned dramatically under Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and James A. Baker III.
"He was viewed as an obstacle," said John Prados, a historian who has written extensively on national security. "At a certain point that obstacle was viewed as politically useful. Events wore on, and the desire to accomplish agreements became greater, and suddenly his opposition was not politically useful."
Gen. Rowny was left out of a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in 1987 that was pivotal to a breakthrough on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. He said Baker's office consistently denied his requests to publish op-eds and make TV appearances.
Gen. Rowny, realizing that he had been marginalized, resigned in 1990. The next year, Bush and Gorbachev signed the START agreement that committed both countries to significantly reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals.
Edward Leon Rowny was born in Baltimore on April 3, 1917. His father, a Polish immigrant, was a contractor who built hundreds of city rowhouses. His mother was also of Polish heritage.
He was studying at Johns Hopkins University when, in 1936, he won a traveling scholarship to Europe. A stop in Berlin convinced him of the inevitability of world war. After graduating from Hopkins in 1937, he enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. — "to get in on the ground floor of the war effort," he later said.
He completed master's degrees in international relations and civil engineering at Yale, both in 1949, and obtained a doctorate in international studies from American University in 1977. He wrote a book about his arms control experiences, "It Takes One to Tango" (1992), and a memoir, "Smokey Joe & the General" (2013).
His military decorations included multiple awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit. Reagan awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal, which cited him as "one of the principal architects of America's policy of peace through strength."
In 1992, Gen. Rowny was instrumental in arranging the return to Warsaw of the remains of the Polish pianist, composer and statesman Ignace Jan Paderewski, who had died in the United States in 1941 and been buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
His first wife, the former Mary Rita Leyko, died in 1988. In 1994, he married Elizabeth Ladd. Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include five children from his first marriage, Marcia Jordan of Denver, Grayson John Rowny of Silver Spring, Md., Paul Rowny of Minneapolis, and Peter Rowny and Michael Rowny, both of Bethesda, Md.; two stepchildren, Jon Ladd of Potomac, Md., and Lyssa Ladd of Nantucket, Mass.; 10 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
As a teenager, Gen. Rowny performed in a Baltimore harmonica band alongside the mouth organ virtuoso Larry Adler. Decades later, the general liked to serenade Soviet negotiators on the instrument when talks came to an impasse.
His musical interludes were not always appreciated by other members of his team, especially the sly musical references that seemed to underscore his perception of talks by two superpowers to decide the fate of the world.
According to Talbott's book, he once launched into what he called the "arms control theme song": "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."
Read more Washington Post obituaries