Donald Rumsfeld, American politician

Born: July 9, 1932;

Died: June 29, 2021

DONALD Rumsfeld, who has died aged 88, was an outstanding example of the American political fixer. As well as being, for several terms, a Congressman, he served (twice) as Secretary for Defence, was White House Chief of Staff and US representative on Nato, a close confidant of Presidents Nixon, Ford and George W Bush, and described by Henry Kissinger as “the most ruthless man” he knew.

Rumsfeld’s political fortunes and reputation fluctuated wildly, even by the standards of Washington’s Beltway. Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, and during the period when he was the chief strategist behind the – initially popular – invasion of Afghanistan, he was the subject of highly favourable profiles describing him as an unlikely sex symbol (he was 70 at the time).

His description of “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns” made headlines and became a kind of catchphrase. Though initially mocked and sent-up, it was later recognised as an acute and pithy categorisation of a long-standing problem of military and political planning, and indeed a central question of ontology.

But as Afghanistan turned into a long-running commitment, costly in both money and American lives, he attracted more controversy and opprobrium, compounded by his role in advocating the war in Iraq. This he based on an insistence that the country had been instrumental in funding al-Q’aeda and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that no evidence for either proposition was ever forthcoming.

Military leaders, both American and those from allied countries brought into the campaign, deplored his refusal to consider the dangers and political vacuum that would follow a military campaign, even if successful, and events largely vindicated their opinion.

The US military and covert agencies’ actions, which included practices highly dubious even in time of war, including prisoner mistreatment and what many characterised as torture at Guantanamo Bay, where US law did not apply, also led to condemnation. There were attempts to indict Rumsfeld for war crimes under both US and international law, and although they were ultimately unsuccessful, in his final years he was a hate figure for opponents, and his record had few defenders.

Donald Henry Rumsfeld was born on July 9 1932 in Chicago, into a family of German origin. He grew up in Winnetka, a town just north of Chicago, though for a couple of years the family was based in California, where his father was stationed during the Second World War. Donald became an Eagle Scout, a first-rate wrestler and a useful American football player and graduated from Princeton in 1954 with a degree in politics.

That year he began three years in the US Navy as an aviator and flight instructor; he also married his wife Joyce, with whom he had three children. After leaving the service in 1957, he became an aide to two Congressmen, and enrolled in law school at both Case Western Reserve University (in Cleveland, Ohio) and Georgetown (in Washington, DC), but never actually graduated from either. From 1960-62, he worked in an investment bank, then got elected to the House of Representatives for Illinois’s 13th district, at just 30.

In the House, he co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act, condemned the conduct of the Vietnam War, and consistently voted for civil rights legislation. After Barry Goldwater’s defeat by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, he became a major cheerleader for Gerald Ford as leader of the Republicans in the House.

In 1969, he resigned his seat to take up a job in Richard Nixon’s Cabinet, as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (the creation of which he had opposed) and then counsellor to the president. In 1973, he became ambassador to Nato in Brussels and, after Nixon’s fall the following year, was recalled as Chief of Staff to Ford.

Within a year, Rumsfeld had engineered a significant coup that became known as the “Halloween Massacre”. He persuaded Ford to ditch Kissinger, and replace James Schlesinger as Defence Secretary, taking the job himself (the youngest person ever in the post). In 1977, he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He then capitalised on his political cachet in the private sector, with lucrative jobs with pharmaceutical and telecoms companies, though he had a host of academic, think-tank and quango roles as well, and was a special envoy to the Middle East during Reagan’s presidency. He was talked of, and even technically nominated for, vice-presidential and presidential candidacies, though those petered out.

When George W Bush became president, he returned as Secretary for Defence in 2001. The terrorist attacks on New York in September – and on the Pentagon, where Rumsfeld was working as a plane crashed into it – presented him with unanticipated influence and freedom to pursue an extremely hawkish agenda. Strangest – and hardest to justify – was his eagerness to launch hostilities against Iraq. Even those who thought regime change and the toppling of Saddam Hussein were desirable outcomes found it hard to see how Rumsfeld had linked them to the 9/11 attacks; and it turned out that WMDs, if they had ever existed, were nowhere to be found.

And if he had been right about the fact that the US military would easily defeat the Iraqi Republican Guard, his critics – who pointed out that he had no plan for what would happen next – were quickly confirmed in their view that the whole business would turn out to be a hornets’ nest, that had cost $700 billion and 4,400 American lives.

Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006, on election day (had the move been announced earlier, many Republicans thought their losses would have been reduced). He wrote a memoir, Known and Unknown, giving the proceeds to veterans’ groups. He established a foundation that funded tuition fees for Asian students, post-graduates and veterans, and backed a microfinance scheme and, oddly, a Solitaire app based on a variant played by Churchill. He declared himself in favour of gays and lesbians serving in the US military. He retired to Taos, in New Mexico, where he died on June 29. He is survived by Joyce and their three children, Valerie, Marcy and Nick.