(CNN) -- Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded coalition forces during the Gulf War, died Thursday, a U.S. official said. He was 78.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Schwarzkopf directed the buildup of 700,000 coalition troops. On January 17, 1991, they began a nearly six-week air assault of Iraqi forces that was followed by a swift ground campaign that pushed Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the general left an indelible imprint on the military.
"General Schwarzkopf's skilled leadership of that campaign liberated the Kuwaiti people and produced a decisive victory for the allied coalition," Panetta said in a written statement. "In the aftermath of that war, General Schwarzkopf was justly recognized as a brilliant strategist and inspiring leader. Today, we recall that enduring legacy and remember him as one of the great military giants of the 20th century."
President Barack Obama said Schwarzkopf stood tall for his country.
"Our prayers are with the Schwarzkopf family, who tonight can know that his legacy will endure in a nation that is more secure because of his patriotic service," Obama said.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who is hospitalized, said the general was a "true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation."
In 1988, Schwarzkopf was appointed commander of the U.S. Central Command.
A Time magazine correspondent described the general, as he prepared his troops along the Kuwaiti border in 1990, as a man "with a John Wayne swagger and a growl like a grizzly."
The general earned the sobriquet "Stormin' Norman."
Schwarzkopf made a reputation as a plain-spoken commander when he gave media briefings during Operation Desert Storm.
He told a room full of his reporters: "As far as Saddam Hussein being a great military strategist, he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational arts, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier. Other than that, he's a great military man, I want you to know that."
While his role in the Gulf War made him famous, Schwarzkopf told CNN's Larry King in a September 1992 interview that war itself and the bloodshed that went with it didn't appeal to him.
"I hate war. Absolutely, I hate war," he said. "Good generalship is a realization that ... you've got to try and figure out how to accomplish your mission with a minimum loss of human life."
The allies' air campaign in 1991 paved the way for their victory, Schwarzkopf recalled. But the preferred plan all along, he said, was to avoid ever having to invade.
"We never wanted a war," he said. "Once the war started, we were hoping that ... they'd come to their senses and stop right then ... After 38 days, we got to a point where we could launch the ground war and, by that time, they hadn't withdrawn."
Van Hipp, who was deputy assistant secretary of the Army during the Gulf War, said Schwarzkopf was a "soldier's general."
"They called him 'Stormin' Norman' for a reason," Hipp said. "But in the end he was a guy. He was a teddy bear. He was tough. He was gruff, but he cared about his troops, and he cared about his soldiers."
Hipp said many allied lives were saved when Schwarzkopf devised a plan to maneuver ground troops westward around the Iraqi forces. It caught Hussein's military off guard when the 100-hour assault began on February 24, 1991.
"We took less than 1% of the casualties that we had been prepared to take," Hipp said. "The Iraqis never knew what hit them."
Schwarzkopf retired in August 1991, hit the lecture circuit and briefly was a military analyst for NBC.
He told King that he was asked to run for U.S. Senate.
"I got off the airplane and they came after me to, you know, run for senator in Florida, and I told them 'No,'" he said. "I'm not a politician. I'd make a lousy politician."
Schwarzkopf wrote a book entitled "It Doesn't Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General Norman H. Schwarzkopf."
In it, he outlined the reasons that coalition forces didn't press onto the Iraqi capital during the first Gulf War.
"Had the United States and the United Kingdom gone on alone to capture Baghdad, under the provisions of the Geneva and Hague conventions we would have been considered occupying powers and therefore would have been responsible for all the costs of maintaining or restoring government, education and other services for the people of Iraq."
Schwarzkopf wrote that had "we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like a dinosaur in the tar pit -- we would still be there, and we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs of that occupation."
A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, leading to the eventual capture of Hussein.
Schwarzkopf was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1934.
His father, Major Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a West Point graduate who fought in World War I, became head of New Jersey State Police, helping to build the fledgling force and eventually leading the investigation of the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
"The day I was born, my father said... 'That boy is going to West Point," Schwarzkopf recalled to King. "And that's the only thing I ever heard my entire young life."
After World War II, according to the book, the younger Schwarzkopf traveled to Iran to be with his father, who was helping advise the training of the country's police force under the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Schwarzkopf attended a Swiss boarding school and later returned to the New York region to enroll at West Point before heading to Vietnam for the first time in 1966.
"I prided myself on being unflappable even in the most chaotic of circumstances," he wrote. "That guise lasted until Vietnam, where I realized that I was dealing with human lives and if one were lost, it could never be replaced. I quickly learned that there was nothing wrong with being emotional."
He was commissioned a second lieutenant and served two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he received three Silver Stars.
Sen. John McCain called the general "one of the great American heroes."
CNN's Barbara Starr, David Ariosto, Carma Hassan and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.