A sister of Schwarzkopf, Ruth Barenbaum of Middlebury, Vt., said that he died in Tampa, Fla., from complications from pneumonia. "We're still in a state of shock," she said by phone. "This was a surprise to us all."
A much-decorated combat soldier in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf was known popularly as "Stormin' Norman" for a notoriously explosive temper.
He served in his last military assignment in Tampa as commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, the headquarters responsible for U.S. military and security concerns in nearly 20 countries from the eastern Mediterranean and Africa to Pakistan.
Schwarzkopf became "CINC-Centcom" in 1988 and when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait three years later to punish it for allegedly stealing Iraqi oil reserves, he commanded Operation Desert Storm, the coalition of some 30 countries organized by then-President George H.W. Bush that succeeded in driving the Iraqis out.
Late Thursday afternoon, the elder Bush, who is currently in an intensive care unit at Houston's Methodist Hospital, issued the following statement about Schwarzkopf's passing:
"Barbara and I mourn the loss of a true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation. A distinguished member of that Long Gray Line hailing from West Point, General Norm Schwarzkopf, to me, epitomized the 'duty, service, country' creed that has defended our freedom and seen this great Nation through our most trying international crises. More than that, he was a good and decent man -- and a dear friend. Barbara and I send our condolences to his wife Brenda and his wonderful family."
At the peak of his postwar national celebrity, Schwarzkopf -- a self-proclaimed political independent -- rejected suggestions that he run for office, and remained far more private than other generals, although he did serve briefly as a military commentator for NBC.
While focused primarily in his later years on charitable enterprises, he campaigned for President George W. Bush in 2000 but was ambivalent about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying he doubted victory would be as easy as the White House and Pentagon predicted. In early 2003 he told the Washington Post the outcome was an unknown:
"What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites? That's a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan," he said.
Initially Schwarzkopf had endorsed the invasion, saying he was convinced that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had given the United Nations powerful evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. After that proved false, he said decisions to go to war should depend on what U.N. weapons inspectors found.
He seldom spoke up during the conflict, but in late 2004, he sharply criticized then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for mistakes that included inadequate training for Army reservists sent to Iraq and for erroneous judgments about Iraq.
"In the final analysis I think we are behind schedule. ... I don't think we counted on it turning into jihad (holy war)," he said in an NBC interview.
Schwarzkopf was born Aug. 24, 1934, in Trenton, N.J., where his father, Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., founder and commander of the New Jersey State Police, was then leading the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnap case, which ended with the arrest and 1936 execution of German-born carpenter Richard Hauptmann for stealing and murdering the famed aviator's infant son.
The elder Schwarzkopf was named Herbert, but when the son was asked what his "H" stood for, he would reply, "H." Although reputed to be short-tempered with aides and subordinates, he was a friendly, talkative and even jovial figure who didn't like "Stormin' Norman" and preferred to be known as "the Bear," a sobriquet given him by troops.
He also was outspoken at times, including when he described Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam, as "a horse's ass" in an Associated Press interview.
As a teenager Norman accompanied his father to Iran, where the elder Schwarzkopf trained the country's national police force and was an adviser to Reza Pahlavi, the young Shah of Iran.
Young Norman studied there and in Switzerland, Germany and Italy, then followed in his father's footsteps to West Point, graduating in 1956 with an engineering degree. After stints in the U.S. and abroad, he earned a master's degree in engineering at the University of Southern California and later taught missile engineering at West Point.
In 1966 he volunteered for Vietnam and served two tours, first as a U.S. adviser to South Vietnamese paratroops and later as a battalion commander in the U.S. Army's Americal Division. He earned three Silver Stars for valor -- including one for saving troops from a minefield -- plus a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and three Distinguished Service Medals.
While many career officers left military service embittered by Vietnam, Schwarzkopf was among those who opted to stay and help rebuild the tattered Army into a potent, modernized all-volunteer force.
After Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Schwarzkopf played a key diplomatic role by helping to persuade Saudi Arabia's King Fahd to allow U.S. and other foreign troops to deploy on Saudi territory as a staging area for the war to come.
On Jan. 17, 1991, a five-month buildup called Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm as allied aircraft attacked Iraqi bases and Baghdad government facilities. The six-week aerial campaign climaxed with a massive ground offensive on Feb. 24-28, routing the Iraqis from Kuwait in 100 hours before U.S. officials called a halt.
Schwarzkopf said afterward he agreed with Bush's decision to stop the war rather than drive to Baghdad to capture Saddam, as his mission had been only to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait.
But in a desert tent meeting with vanquished Iraqi generals, he allowed a key concession on Iraq's use of helicopters, which later backfired by enabling Saddam to crack down more easily on rebellious Shiites and Kurds.
While he later avoided the public second-guessing by academics and think tank experts over the ambiguous outcome of Gulf War I and its impact on Gulf War II, he told the Washington Post in 2003, "You can't help but... with 20/20 hindsight, go back and say, `Look, had we done something different, we probably wouldn't be facing what we are facing today."'
After retiring from the Army in 1992, Schwarzkopf wrote a best-selling autobiography, "It Doesn't Take A Hero." Of his Gulf war role, he said, "I like to say I'm not a hero. I was lucky enough to lead a very successful war." He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and honored with decorations from France, Britain, Belgium, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
Schwarzkopf was a national spokesman for prostate cancer awareness and for Recovery of the Grizzly Bear, served on the Nature Conservancy board of governors and was active in various charities for chronically ill children.
"I may have made my reputation as a general in the Army and I'm very proud of that," he once told the AP. "But I've always felt that I was more than one-dimensional. I'd like to think I'm a caring human being. ... It's nice to feel that you have a purpose."
Schwarzkopf and his wife, Brenda, had three children: Cynthia, Jessica and Christian.
The Associated Press contributed to this report