U.S.

Making History: The Life and Times of Donald Henry Rumsfeld

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld arrives on stage to address troops in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Examining one American’s intersection with the events of his era.

July 9, 2021, would have been Donald Rumsfeld’s 89th birthday, had he not passed away last week at the age of 88. Always keenly aware of history and his role in it, when he approached 80 a decade ago, he was fond of reminding those of us then privileged to work with him on his memoirs that he had lived through about one-third of American history. As a historian (“An art historian — of all things!” as Rumsfeld would say), I found it particularly instructive to examine six key events he personally interacted with between 1941 and 2001. This era contained one of the most remarkable series of experiences in our nation’s history. It also traced the trajectory of Rumsfeld’s own life, from a small child observing history to a senior statesman shaping its outcome. Having served as Rumsfeld’s archivist and director of research for his memoir, Known and Unknown, I had the opportunity to personally discuss all these events with him, with sometimes surprising outcomes.

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The battleship USS Arizona burns after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. (US Navy/Naval History and Heritage Command/Handout via Reuters )

December 6, 1941: Pearl Harbor

Rumsfeld’s first close encounter with history came on December 7, 1941, when he was nine years old. He and his father George were listening to their beloved Chicago Bears on the radio when an announcer broke in to report the massive Imperial Japanese attack on the U.S. naval facility at Pearl Harbor. Don’s childhood had been quiet and sheltered; the visceral shock of this unknown and unexpected attack would stay with him for the rest of his life. It also brought immediate and dramatic changes. George Rumsfeld, slight of stature and 39 years old, resolved to join the Navy and eventually persuaded his local recruiting office to accept him. His small family of Don, daughter Joan, and wife Jennette moved west to Coronado, Calif. The newly minted Lieutenant Rumsfeld then shipped off to the Pacific Theater, leaving his family, like so many other young families, to cope as best they could under unfamiliar and difficult circumstances.

At the time, Don had little context for events beyond his own personal experiences. He recalled being distressed when President Franklin Roosevelt’s death was announced on his school loudspeaker, even as some of his classmates, whose parents were no doubt partisan Republicans, cheered. But as he explains in Known and Unknown, “In my young mind, FDR was tied to my father, his ship, our country, and the war. I cried.”

The Rumsfelds stayed in Coronado through the war’s end. Don made a record haul selling newspapers on the pier on V-J Day, August 14, 1945 (one of the few things he did not keep in his long and diligent life as a record-keeper was a copy of that paper; he had sold out). All that mattered to him was that his father would be home soon, and they could return to Chicago. It would have been understandable for Don to harbor resentment against Japan, which had taken his father away from him for so long. On the contrary, however, he went out of his way throughout his life to support the reconciliation that would flower into one of America’s most powerful and enduring alliances. In Congress, for example, he became a leader in the Japanese-American Parliamentary Exchange that helped Japan develop durable democratic institutions, and increased people-to-people relationships. I was honored to be present in 2015 at the Japanese Embassy to the United States when Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama presented Donald Rumsfeld with the Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon, First Class, on behalf of the Emperor of Japan in recognition of everything he had done to promote and protect the alliance between our two countries.

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, July 20, 1969, photographed by Neil Armstrong. (NASA)

July 20, 1969: Moon Landing

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1962 at the age of 30, Rumsfeld was less than a year into his first term when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 21, 1963. He had barely known the president and was a staunch Republican, but he did have a close connection with a key piece of the Kennedy legacy. During his four terms in Congress, Rumsfeld served on the Manned Spaceflight Sub-Committee, which was charged with realizing President Kennedy’s inspiring vision to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade. It was a personal mission for Rumsfeld, who, as a naval aviator in the 1950s, had considered volunteering to be an astronaut but was discouraged by his wife (“Joyce would have killed me!” he always said). He visited Wernher von Braun, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala., and knew the aspiring astronauts personally. You would think the moon landing on July 20, 1969, would have been a triumphant culmination of this long effort. I assumed so when I scheduled time to discuss it with him.

But July 20, 1969 was nothing of the sort for Rumsfeld, then serving in the Richard Nixon administration. “I didn’t want to do it,” he told me tersely. His views on space exploration were decidedly different from the Kennedyesque aspirations that sent Apollo 11 to the moon. As a congressman, Rumsfeld had taken a far more practical approach, guided by the understanding that space was going to be a transformational frontier for humanity, and the firm conviction that the U.S. should take the lead. He had therefore developed a plan for America to control what was then called “inner space,” the 150-mile envelope around the Earth that has become such a busy, and largely lawless, arena for the legions of satellites on which our lives now depend. He saw the quest for the moon as a diversion of resources that would have been better applied to this effort. This wasn’t just convenient hindsight; he laid out his views in a long-form piece titled “Space and the Cold War” in the November 18, 1963, edition of Washington Report. While perhaps less exciting to the national imagination than the moon landing, U.S. oversight of this region of space would have made us — and our friends and allies — much more secure than we are today.

President Richard Nixon says goodbye to the White House staff in the East Room, August 9, 1974. (Reuters)

August 8, 1974: Nixon’s Resignation

The Nixon administration was not a particularly comfortable period for Rumsfeld, who never cracked the president’s inner circle (fortuitously, as it turned out). But he did learn an enormous amount about the workings of the White House. After Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972, Rumsfeld made what many then considered the inconceivable choice to leave Washington, D.C., to serve as ambassador to NATO in Brussels. He moved with his young family — Joyce and their three children, Valerie, Marcy, and Nick — in spring 1973. Sixteen months later, this move would prove almost prophetically astute, so much so that some speculated he had foreknowledge of the coming Watergate scandal. He did not. Like most, Rumsfeld had learned about Watergate from the initial Woodward and Bernstein reporting on the incident in the June 19, 1972, edition of the Washington Post. He thought it was imperative to get out ahead of the scandal, but he had no premonition of what it was to become.

In early August 1974, the Rumsfelds were taking a much-needed vacation in Greece and the south of France. In the days before cell phones, this meant effective isolation from both Brussels and Washington. Rumsfeld had spent the early summer managing the most recent crisis between Greece and Turkey, ostensibly both NATO allies, more or less single-handedly as the administration increasingly turned inward to protect the embattled president. He needed a break. He knew events back home were serious, but it had not occurred to him that Nixon might resign. The end therefore came as a surprise to him. On a drive through Saint-Tropez, Joyce gently insisted he pull over and look at the newspaper she had been reading. The news was sensational. She didn’t want to upset the children in the back seat, as they knew the president. According to the reports, Nixon was close to becoming the first American president to resign, which would make Rumsfeld’s old friend from Congress, Gerald Ford, president of the United States. When they arrived at their destination, there was a telephone message that the vice president’s office wanted Rumsfeld to fly home immediately. He was actually in the air when Nixon dramatically departed by helicopter from the White House on August 9, 1974. Rumsfeld was picked up at the airport by his former congressional aide Dick Cheney in an ancient VW bug. They went straight to the White House to begin the transition to the Ford administration, in which they would both serve at the highest levels.

South Vietnamese refugees are hurried off a CH-53 helicopter by sailors and marines aboard USS Hancock during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975. (Department of Defense/National Archives)

April 29, 1975: Evacuation of Saigon

As a congressman in August 1964, Rumsfeld had voted for the “Gulf of Tonkin” resolution, which had pledged that Congress would approve and support military action in Southeast Asia to confront Communist aggression. The resolution was inspired by a murky naval encounter between the USS Maddox and some North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The measure passed the House 416–0, as the American people were firmly anti-Communist. But the broad authority President Lyndon Johnson subsequently claimed under the resolution (Rumsfeld recalled Johnson kept a copy of it in his pocket during subsequent meetings on Vietnam) would prove a slippery slope. Rumsfeld noted in a memo after the vote that he was concerned by the language, and also that he had talked to Senator Barry Goldwater about it; Goldwater believed the resolution may have even authorized nuclear warfare in Vietnam. In the ensuing years, Rumsfeld watched Johnson massively expand the war, which looked increasingly unwinnable, and then watched Henry Kissinger try to diplomatically salvage something out of the mess the Nixon administration inherited.

The final throes of Vietnam took place in the first year of the Ford administration, when Congress cut off all funding for the effort. “Those bastards,” fumed President Ford. But there was nothing more he could do. The final evacuation of Saigon took place on April 29, 1975, and was broadcast on live TV, a first for this sort of event. Rumsfeld watched most of it from the Oval Office with Ford, for whom he was then serving as chief of staff (which he described as the hardest job he ever had). He heard the strains of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” on the radio, which signaled the evacuation was under way, and saw the footage of desperate Vietnamese clinging to the helicopters when it became clear that there was room only for American citizens. Rumsfeld was deeply concerned that the hasty and ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam would not bring the closure so many Americans wanted but would rather invite more aggression from our (then) many foes in Southeast Asia. It did barely two weeks later, in the Mayaguez incident with the Khmer Rouge. This pattern would repeat in the future following U.S. retreats.

Emergency crews search for survivors after the attack against U. S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, October 23, 1983. (USMC/Handout via Reuters)

October 23, 1983: Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing

Despite being one of the finalists under consideration to be Ronald Reagan’s vice president in 1980, Rumsfeld did not get a senior position in his administration. Then pursuing a highly successful career in the private sector, which he had begun after Ford’s 1976 defeat by Jimmy Carter, Rumsfeld was keeping busy. But when George Shultz, his colleague from the Nixon administration who was then serving as secretary of state, called on October 24, 1983, and asked him to come to Washington to see the president, Rumsfeld did not hesitate. The previous day, an Islamic militant affiliated with what would become the Iranian proxy terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon had driven a truck laden with explosives up to the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport and detonated, killing 241 U.S. servicemen, including 220 Marines, who were there on a U.N. peacekeeping mission after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Shultz wanted Rumsfeld to become Reagan’s Middle East envoy to try to get the situation under control. Over the course of five trips between November 1983 and March 1984, Rumsfeld crisscrossed the region, trying to find partners to confront what was still a shadowy, amorphous enemy. He famously met Saddam Hussein, who was then in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, in Baghdad, although he was much more interested in his meeting on that trip with Saddam adviser Tariq Aziz. It quickly became clear that there weren’t many good options. “I promise you will never hear out of my mouth the phrase ‘The United States seeks a just and lasting peace in the Middle East,’” Rumsfeld wrote in a memo to Shultz. “There is little that is just and the only things I’ve seen that are lasting are conflict, blackmail and killing — not peace.”  He tried to develop a plan to help Lebanon achieve some autonomous stability, but it was clear there was no appetite, from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, for the degree of U.S. engagement that would require. President Reagan decided to withdraw U.S. forces from Lebanon in March 1984. The nation was left to a slow-motion disintegration that continues to this day.

While most in the U.S. didn’t want to know it, October 23, 1983, marked the beginning of what would one day be known as the Global War on Terror, a misnomer that Rumsfeld always disliked, although he never came up with a better alternative. Even as the Reagan administration made defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War its priority, Rumsfeld knew that this other threat was quietly — and sometimes not-so-quietly — metastasizing in the Middle East. This is one of the reasons he chose his period as Middle East envoy as the opening section of Known and Unknown. A number of parties, including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, took note when the U.S. cut its losses in Lebanon.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-President George W. Bush speaks in front of the west side of the Pentagon, September 12, 2001. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

September 11, 2001: 9/11

The Beirut Marine Barracks bombing was the single-largest terrorist attack on the U.S. until September 11, 2001. On that bright and sunny day, Rumsfeld was serving in the George W. Bush administration as secretary of defense, as he had also done at the end of the Ford administration. He was monitoring the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York from his office in the Pentagon when suddenly the massive building shook for an extended period. Rumsfeld quickly guessed it was another plane, and instinctively tried to get to the point of impact, which turned out to be the west side of the building. He did what he could to help the most grievously wounded, then realized, correctly, that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were probably looking for him. He then made his way to the command center — to the great relief of his security detail. I once asked if he had taken it personally that the terrorists had chosen the Pentagon as a target. “It was hard not to,” he responded.

Service in the Bush administration had been somewhat unexpected. After completing two bipartisan presidential commissions during the Clinton administration, on the spreading threat of ballistic missiles from countries such as Iran and on establishing U.S. national-security priorities in space, he had planned to go into semi-retirement with Joyce in their beloved Taos, N.M. Rumsfeld certainly supported the Republican ticket in 2000, especially given that Dick Cheney was on it. Rumsfeld actually planned to recommend that Cheney, who had also served as secretary of defense during the George H. W. Bush administration, be double-hatted as both vice president and SecDef. So he was surprised when Cheney called and offered him the position on December 28, 2000. But he relished the opportunity to go back into the Pentagon and was particularly interested in seeing how the decisions he had made during his 1975–77 tenure had held up. His early focus on military transformation/modernization filled him with a deep unease that the United States was still in a traditional, Cold War posture and would not be prepared for what might come next. In late July 2001, he reflected, in one of his famous “snowflake” memos, that “in some future hearing I am going to say I do not want to be sitting in front of this panel in a modern day version of a Pearl Harbor post-mortem as to who didn’t do what, where, when or why. None of us would want to have to be back here going through that agony.”

He was correct. We were not prepared for what hit us, and there was plenty of agony to go around. Rumsfeld was not one for hand-wringing, however, and began frenetically planning in the days and weeks after 9/11. This former ambassador to NATO was the sitting U.S. secretary of Defense when Article Five of the NATO Charter was invoked for the first (and only) time in the alliance’s history — and he was so busy he didn’t even know it had happened. Rumsfeld’s top priority was to reestablish U.S. deterrence by executing a devastating strike on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. The daring and innovative October 2001 invasion that he directed was a remarkable military success. After the fighting concluded, his inclination was to declare victory and to start preparing for the next threat, which he understood to be Iran. But history took the U.S., and Rumsfeld, on a different course.

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The Wall Street Journal (correctly) described Known and Unknown as “the first political memoir of the Information Age.” Rumsfeld did a great service to the nation by spending considerable time and treasure in his retirement to organize and digitize his voluminous archives. Future historians will thus have not only access to his account of events, but also to the primary documents that informed it, many of which (including all those referenced in this piece) are already available to the public on the Rumsfeld.com archives. It was a remarkable, forward-looking project that will do much to raise the standards of historical writing on the period as digital records are available on any device connected to the Internet, and so not constrained by who receives what grant or has access to which library. I do not know if he could have envisioned how the digital archive would take shape when he made his first paper archive deposit at the Library of Congress in 1979, but he did have the foresight to purchase the Rumsfeld domain name in the 1990s — something he remembered only when his staff was trying to buy it to support Known and Unknown in 2010.

As my friend and mentor himself becomes the stuff of history, I want to thank him for the remarkable opportunity he gave this academic to work with a living subject in the context of a remarkable archive, and so to transition from the realm of ideas to the arena of actions. The experience was for me, to borrow a Rumsfeldian term, nothing short of transformational.

Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a Principal Member of Vi et Arte Solutions, LLC. She served as deputy national-security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs in the Trump Administration. @VictoriaCoates

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