Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who served under three Republican presidents and led the Pentagon through the 9/11 attacks, the resulting U.S. military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the first years of America’s global war on terrorism, died Wednesday at age 88.
Through a lifetime of dedication to government service, Mr. Rumsfeld — or “Rummy” as he was often called — built a reputation as a leader, a superbly skilled bureaucrat and a visionary for the continual modernization of the U.S. military in the post-World War II era. With a sharp tongue, a lively pen and a knack for memorable aphorisms, he inspired deep devotion and harsh opposition in equal measure in implementing his vision for enhancing the nation’s security.
“It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Donald Rumsfeld, an American statesman and devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather,” Mr. Rumsfeld’s family said in a statement.
Mr. Rumsfeld died at his family home in Taos, New Mexico, after battling multiple myeloma, a form of cancer, a family spokesman said.
“History may remember him for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service, but for those who knew him best and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country,” the family said.
Elected to four terms as a congressman from Illinois and serving as White House chief of staff to President Ford, Mr. Rumsfeld launched a brief, ill-fated run for president in 1988. But it was his passion for the Pentagon that undergirds his legacy: He is the only person to have served as secretary of defense twice, the first time under Ford from 1975 to 1977, when Mr. Rumsfeld was the youngest person ever to hold the job at age 43.
Mr. Rumsfeld was the oldest defense secretary when he got tapped as Pentagon chief for a second time in 2000 by President George W. Bush. He was inside the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when a hijacked commercial airliner crashed into the five-sided building.
He later recalled feeling the building tremble and running through the smoke and the fumes of jet fuel to the crash site as aides beseeched him to leave the area. “Sherman had famously commented that ‘war is hell,’” Mr. Rumsfeld wrote in his 2011 memoir. “Hell had descended on the Pentagon.”
He stayed throughout the day overseeing the rescue efforts from an attack that killed 189 people on the plane and working in the building that day. He vowed that the Pentagon would be open for business the next day and carried out his promise.
Over the months that followed 9/11, Mr. Rumsfeld was a central figure in devising and implementing historic American military campaigns at the dawn of the 21st century. He oversaw the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the rapid toppling of the Taliban regime. He presided over must-see televised briefings on the war, winning plaudits for his blunt talk and uncompromising style and emerging as an icon for neoconservatives and foreign policy hawks in Washington.
Mr. Bush offered high praise in a statement eulogizing his longtime ally. He recalled that “on the morning of September 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld ran to the fire at the Pentagon to assist the wounded and ensure the safety of survivors.”
“For the next five years, he was in steady service as a wartime secretary of defense — a duty he carried out with strength, skill, and honor,” Mr. Bush said. “In a busy and purposeful life, Don Rumsfeld was a naval officer, a member of Congress, a distinguished Cabinet official in several administrations, a respected business leader — and, with his beloved wife, the co-founder of a charitable foundation.
“Later in life, he even became an app developer. All his life, he was good-humored and big-hearted, and he treasured his family above all else,” the former president said.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s role at the Pentagon in the post-9/11 era was not without criticism. Opponents wrote books and made movies accusing him of advocating for the torture of suspected terrorists and of engineering the invasion of Iraq in search of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that failed to materialize. He twice offered his resignation to Mr. Bush in 2004 amid disclosures that U.S. troops abused detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. He later referred to it as his “darkest hour” as defense secretary.
Not until November 2006, after Democrats gained control of Congress riding a wave of anti-war sentiment, did Mr. Bush accept Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation.
Mr. Rumsfeld started the Rumsfeld Foundation in 2008 to promote public service and work with charities that provide services and support for military families and wounded veterans.
Regarded by former colleagues as equally smart and combative, patriotic and politically cunning, he had a storied career in government under four presidents and nearly a quarter century in corporate America. Many who worked with him over the years have spoken in awe of his ambition, as well as his wit, energy and engaging demeanor. They described him as a man capable of great personal warmth even as he irritated many with his often confrontational style.
Born in Illinois in the depths of the Great Depression, Mr. Rumsfeld attended Princeton and was a member of the university’s wrestling team during the early 1950s. It was a personal accomplishment he would often humorously cite to reporters when things turned pointed during question-and-answer sessions — sessions he was known to relish and engage in often with the journalists who traveled with him during his years as defense secretary.
Mr. Rumsfeld relished verbal sparring to the point that he elevated it to an art form. Biting humor was a favorite weapon. But he also dished out notorious “Rumsfeldian” responses to truculent reporters.
Grilled in 2002 for proof behind claims that Iraq’s government may have supplied weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, Mr. Rumsfeld famously responded: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Asked at another point whether U.S. forces were equipped properly for the campaign in Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld memorably replied, “You go to war with the army you have. They’re not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
After his studies at Princeton, Mr. Rumsfeld served in the Navy as a fighter jet pilot and flight instructor. He left active service in 1957 but continued to serve and fly in the Navy Reserve for many years thereafter. He worked for a time as an aide on Capitol Hill and in the private sector before running for Congress from Illinois in 1962 and winning a seat at the age of 30.
As a congressman, he co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act. In 1969, he accepted an appointment by President Nixon to head the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Mr. Rumsfeld quickly emerged as a consummate insider of Republican administrations. Mr. Nixon tapped him as ambassador to NATO. He later became White House chief of staff for Mr. Ford, a role in which he oversaw the hiring of several key administration staffers who would later go on to prominence in government, including Bush-era Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mr. Rumsfeld worked in the private sector between his time in the Ford and Nixon administrations and the George W. Bush administration. He held top-level positions at G.D. Searle & Co., General Instrument and Gilead Sciences.
Despite his critics, he built a vast network of loyalists who admired his work ethic, intelligence and impatience with all who failed to share his sense of urgency to get things done.
“At every step of the way, Donald Rumsfeld led with conviction and a cutting intellect,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a statement. “Our nation has lost one of its fiercest defenders.”
Many of the encomiums for Mr. Rumsfeld mentioned his long and loving marriage to his wife, Joyce, his high school sweetheart. She survives him, as do their three children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, the family said.
Mr. Rumsfeld sought to promote messaging that would make the United States a role model for other nations combating extremism in the post-9/11 era.
“We are in a war of ideas, as well as a global war on terror,” he told The Washington Times in an interview at the Pentagon in October 2003. “And the ideas are important, and they need to be marshaled, and they need to be communicated in ways that are persuasive to the listeners.”
“In many instances, we’re not the best messengers,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
“The overwhelming majority of the people of all religions don’t believe in terrorism,” he said. “They don’t believe in running around killing innocent men, women and children. And we need more people standing up and saying that in the world, not just us.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.