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Donald Rumsfeld (1932–2021), former Secretary of Defense

by Linnea Crowther

Donald Rumsfeld was the U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford from 1975 to 1977 and again under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006.

Secretary of Defense

In his first term as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld was the youngest ever to serve in that role, at 43, while at the time that he reentered the position in 2001, he was the oldest Secretary of Defense ever appointed, at 68.

As Rumsfeld was appointed Secretary of Defense in 1975, the long Vietnam War had only recently ended, and the U.S. military was transitioning back to a voluntary force with the draft no longer necessary. The U.S. was also not at war when Rumsfeld arrived at the Pentagon in 2001 to revisit the job – but that would shortly change. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he oversaw the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, establishing the “Rumsfeld Doctrine,” a strategy that called for quick response to threats with small numbers of ground forces and heavy reliance on air strikes.


Rumsfeld was widely criticized for his handling of the Iraq War, including by a prominent group of retired generals that spoke out about what they called his incompetence. Also controversial in Rumsfeld’s term was his support for torture of prisoners of war, and several lawsuits were filed against Rumsfeld and other government officials over the treatment of prisoners in facilities including Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld resigned in 2006, though he was unwaveringly defended by President Bush.

Other work

A U.S. Navy veteran, Rumsfeld also represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1963 to 1969 and was Ford’s Chief of Staff from 1974 to 1975. He was a business leader in the pharmaceutical and technological industries, at companies including G.D. Searle & Company and Gilead Sciences, Inc., in the years between the Ford and Bush administrations. Rumsfeld was an early mentor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns” quote

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say there are things we know we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks through the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” —from a 2002 Department of Defense news briefing

Full obituary: The New York Times

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