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Donald Rumsfeld, The Controversial Architect Of The Iraq War, Has Died

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, pictured in February 2011, has died, his family announced on Wednesday.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, pictured in February 2011, has died, his family announced on Wednesday.

Updated June 30, 2021 at 8:36 PM ET

Donald Rumsfeld, who served twice as U.S. secretary of defense and who was an architect of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has died. He was 88.

"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," Rumsfeld's family saidin a Twitter post.

"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."

Rumsfeld holds the distinction of being both the youngest and the oldest person to serve at the helm of the Defense Department.

Hawkish and a leader of the neoconservative movement that found considerable influence in the George W. Bush White House, Rumsfeld is perhaps best remembered as one of the key architects of the decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His post-9/11 strategy has become one of the hallmarks of U.S. foreign policy, and the bloody trail left in the wake of the 2000s invasions has left some to remember him as a skilled statesman, while others have blamed these interventions as responsible for destabilizing the region and roping American soldiers into seemingly endless war.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld watches as President Bush talks about the devastation at the Pentagon in Washington on Sept. 12, 2001.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld watches as then-President George W. Bush talks about the devastation at the Pentagon on Sept. 12, 2001.

As the Iraq War raged, U.S. troops became embroiled in a scandal involving the harsh treatment of Iraqi prisoners in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Rumsfeld subsequently said he offered to quit twice during that period, but that Bush "made that decision and said he did want me to stay on."

"That was such a stain on our country," he told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in 2011. The prisoners, he said, were treated in a "disgusting and perverted and ghastly way."

His position on the treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay also drew scrutiny — and criticism. A memo that detailed how interrogators at the prison camp forced prisoners to stand for four hours at a time bore this handwritten note from Rumsfeld: "I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing [by prisoners] limited to 4 hours? D.R."

Bush, under whom Rumsfeld served as defense chief for the second time, eulogized his longtime ally on Wednesday.

"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," Bush said in a statement.

"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. Laura and I are very sorry to learn of Don's passing, and we send our deepest sympathy to Joyce and their children. We mourn an exemplary public servant and a very good man."

Rumsfeld resigned as defense secretary in 2006 as Americans expressed outrage over the Iraq War, which was fast becoming a foreign policy liability for the Bush administration.

Rumsfeld largely stood by his actions, though, in his 2011 memoir and in his farewell remarks to the Pentagon in 2006.

"A conclusion by our enemies that the United States lacks the will or the resolve to carry out our missions that demand sacrifice and demand patience is every bit as dangerous as an imbalance of conventional military power," he said. "It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat. But the enemy thinks differently."

Rumsfeld's early years in Washington

Rumsfeld arrived in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s as an accomplished Ivy League athlete and a veteran airman for the U.S. Navy.

The Chicago-born Boy Scout quickly fell into the pace of government and would eventually be elected to serve four terms as a Republican representing Illinois' 13th Congressional District.

Rumsfeld resigned from the Congress in 1969 to join the administration of then-President Richard Nixon.

Years later, following Nixon's fall from grace and ultimate resignation, Rumsfeld returned to the White House to serve his first stint as defense secretary, under President Gerald Ford. It was there that Rumsfeld would solidify an alliance with Dick Cheney, who went on to serve as Bush's vice president, and alongside whom Rumsfeld would later make key foreign policy decisions.

Following his time with President Ford, Rumsfeld left politics in search of success in the corporate world — which eventually saw him overseeing two Fortune 500 companies as chief executive.

A generation later, Rumsfeld entered his second act in Washington, emerging as a surprise pick for Bush's defense secretary.

The current secretary, Lloyd Austin, on Wednesday said in a statement that "Rumsfeld was propelled by his boundless energy, probing intellect, and abiding commitment to serve his country. On behalf of the Department of Defense, I extend my deep condolences to his family and loved ones."

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Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.