Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpI was riding the tourist mobile at Arlington Cemetery this October when I chanced to notice an elegant tombstone bearing the name Edward Rowny.

I recognized him as the decorated Army general who headed President Reagan’s team negotiating strategic arms limitations with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Flash forward to November when I attended the author’s night/book fair at the National Press Club. Standing before me at a reception was a ribbon-bedecked Gen. Edward Rowny himself, there to sign his memoir “Smokey Joe and the General.”

We chatted and arranged for him to tell me the story of his relationship both with Arlington Cemetery and his former hometown of Arlington County.

Rowny’s book is a combination autobiography and biography of his first boss, John Elliott Wood, “considered the best trainer in the Army,” he writes. His mentoring enabled the rise of Baltimore-born Rowny, a Polish-American, to the top of the military establishment under five presidents.

The roots of Rowny’s hawkish foreign policy were sown in the 1930s when, as a student at Johns Hopkins University, he spent a year abroad in Poland. A side trip to Berlin brought him to the 1936 Olympic Games at which sprinter Jesse Owens win four gold medals. “I became terrified of the Nazis,” he told me.

He won a slot at West Point in 1937 and, just before Pearl Harbor, found himself in the first U.S. Army unit sent overseas. He fought at the boot of Italy from 1942 through V-E day.

With the World War over, Rowny ended up as a planner for Gen. George Marshall. Later he became chief of staff to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and during the Korean War, he was a planner and spokesman for Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “Wood and I rated the top generals,” Rowny said, under a system that put Marshall on top with eight or nine points, followed by Ike and MacArthur tied at seven.

“The highlight of my career came during the Vietnam War,” Rowny said, “when we brought the first armed helicopters into battle, which was controversial” because low-flying vehicles were vulnerable to being shot down. Now it is standard.

Perhaps Rowny’s biggest splash was when, having become President Carter’s chief nuclear arms negotiator, he walked out in 1979, calling the pending treaty “unequal and unverifiable.” He worked for candidate Ronald Reagan, ending up as Reagan’s SALT negotiator and roving ambassador. That allowed him to meet seven times with Polish-born Pope John Paul II.

Meanwhile, his intermittent stints in the Washington area made him an Arlington resident. He chose Aurora Hills, near the Pentagon, with other military brass were neighbors. Rowny became active in the nearby Arlington Historical Society, donating his grandmother’s typewriter and steam flatiron as artifacts.

Now retired in the District, Rowny works with the I.J. Paderewski scholarship fund, named for Poland’s “George Washington.”

When I asked about the tombstone in Arlington Cemetery, right near the JFK gravesite, Rowny explained that his first wife has been buried since 1988 “in that beautiful spot.” When he was dating his eventual second wife, another military wife at a cocktail party told him that her own husband lay in the cemetery under a stone where she too would rest. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she said, to the dismay of Rowny’s date, “if we could be lying next to each other?”

*****

At another Arlington cemetery, I pleased to report a good deed by avid preservationists among the student body at Marymount University.

For decades, a forbidding stand of trees and weeds hindered access to the Birch-Campbell cemetery in the middle of campus. It contains the graves of one of Arlington’s early prominent families, among them Caleb Birch (circa 1779-1858), a farmer and constable who built the nearby Birchwood Cabin. Also there is his wife Mary Bowling; their granddaughter Mariah (1844-1936), who married a William L. Campbell; and their great-grandson Andrew E. Birch (1860-1920).

Kudos to the Marymount clubs for clearing a passageway.