Major General (ret) Roland Lajoie (87), a resident of West Wilton, New Hampshire, passed away peacefully on Saturday, October 28, 2023, surrounded by his family. With four decades of public service as one of the U.S. Army’s foremost experts on the Soviet military, he helped manage dangerous tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and implemented an historic program to account for, and destroy, Soviet nuclear weapons in its aftermath.
Roland Lajoie was born in 1936 in Nashua, New Hampshire, a first-generation American born to French Canadian parents drawn to New England’s textile mills. The youngest of eight children in a working-class family of modest means, his older siblings pooled their savings to send him to the University of New Hampshire. A gifted athlete, Lajoie learned to play lacrosse at UNH, earning a starting spot on the varsity team and setting records for his scoring and assists.
After graduating from UNH in 1958 and earning a commission in the U.S. Army, Lajoie served two combat tours in Vietnam as an intelligence officer before learning Russian to specialize in the Soviet Union. Serving twice as a military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and later as the Chief, United States Military Liaison Mission, Potsdam, East Germany, he became an expert on Soviet military capabilities and doctrine and found himself at the collision point of two superpowers at the height of the Cold War.
In March 1985, Lajoie was at the epicenter of a tense moment in the Cold War when a Russian sentry shot and killed an unarmed American officer, Major Arthur “Nick” Nicholson, Jr., while on a routine mission. As Nicholson’s commanding officer and the senior U.S. official to arrive on the scene, Lajoie managed the unfolding crisis, registering protest over the callous and unwarranted killing of the unarmed American, without allowing the incident to spiral out of control. He carried the burden of Nicholson’s loss throughout his life and devoted himself to keeping Nick’s memory alive.
In 1987, while serving as Defense Attaché to France, Lajoie was selected by the Reagan Administration to return to Washington and design a groundbreaking organization to ensure Soviet compliance with the newly signed Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. He created the On-Site Inspection Agency (OSIA) from concept to a fully functioning unit in a matter of months and served as its first director. OSIA conducted hundreds of inspections inside the Soviet Union and confirmed the destruction of over 1,800 Soviet missiles, dramatically lowering the risk of escalation to nuclear weapons in a future conflict.
In 1992, Lajoie was selected by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, to establish and lead a new Office of Military Affairs in the Central Intelligence Agency. Through Lajoie’s efforts, the Agency greatly improved its intelligence sharing, providing military commanders direct access to CIA products and personnel.
After retiring from the Army in 1994, Lajoie served as the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Cooperative Threat Reduction, an office mandated by the Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991. In this position, he led the Pentagon’s efforts to assist Russia decommission and secure nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons stockpiles located in the newly independent, former Soviet states. It is hard to overstate the importance of this accounting for weapons of mass destruction during the chaotic period following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Cooperative Threat Reduction program deactivated over 13,000 nuclear warheads and secured thousands of pounds of fissile material, weapons that might have fallen into the hands of terrorists, criminals, or the black market.
In November 1998, President Clinton appointed Lajoie as the U.S. Chairman to the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. The thaw in U.S.-Russian relations allowed U.S. researchers to examine previously closed Soviet archives for evidence of U.S. soldiers missing in action over a sixty-year period. As Commission Chairman, he led an expedition to the Russian Far East to recover the remains of U.S. service members lost during World War II.
General Lajoie enjoyed traveling the world with his family, both during his military career and into his retirement. He had a quick wit and an uncanny knack for engaging people, from senior officials to young children, and is beloved by his immediate and extended family. Throughout his life he enjoyed staying active, including skiing, hiking, and playing tennis well into his eighties—a love he passed on to his children and grandchildren. During his retirement he and his wife enjoyed restoring their 200-year-old colonial home. He remained engaged with UNH alumni circles, his military colleagues around the world, and his community of friends in New Hampshire and Maine, where he enjoyed many summers on Kezar Lake. He will be deeply missed for his sharp insights on global issues, sound judgment during crises, and wicked sense of humor.
General Lajoie is survived by his wife of sixty-two years, Jo Ann; his children, Michelle Detwiler, Chris Lajoie, and Renee Lajoie Newell; his four grandchildren, Madeleine Detwiler, Jack Newell, Elise Newell, and Kate Newell; his sister, Madeleine Lajoie; and many nieces and nephews. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.