Born in Chicago, Illinois, he attended Princeton University on scholarship (AB, 1954) and served in the United States Navy (1954-57) as a Naval aviator. He went to Washington, DC, in 1957, during the Eisenhower Administration, to serve as Administrative Assistant to a Congressman. After a stint with an investment banking firm, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois in 1962, at the age of 30, and was re-elected in 1964, 1966, and 1968.
Rumsfeld resigned from Congress in 1969 during his fourth term to serve in the Nixon Administration as:
- Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Assistant to the President, and a member of the President's Cabinet (1969-1970);
- Counsellor to the President, Director of the Economic Stabilization Program;
- member of the President's Cabinet (1971-1972).
In August 1974, he was called back to Washington, DC, to serve in the Ford Administration successively as:
- Chairman of the transition to the Presidency of Gerald R. Ford (1974);
- White House Chief of Staff member of the President's Cabinet (1974-1975);
- The 13th U.S. Secretary of Defense (1975-1977), the youngest in the country's history .
Rumsfeld served as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Instrument Corporation from 1990 to 1993. A leader in broadband transmission, distribution, and access control technologies for cable, satellite and terrestrial broadcasting applications, the company pioneered the development of the first all-digital high definition television (HDTV) technology. After taking the company public and returning it to profitability, Rumsfeld returned to private business in late 1993. Until being sworn in as the 21st Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld served as Chairman of Gilead Sciences, Inc.
During his business career, Rumsfeld continued public service in a variety of posts, including:
- Member of the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control - Reagan Administration (1982 - 1986);
- President Reagan's Special Envoy on the Law of the Sea Treaty (1982 - 1983);
- Senior Advisor to President Reagan's Panel on Strategic Systems (1983 - 1984);
- Member of the U.S. Joint Advisory Commission on U.S./Japan Relations - Reagan Administration (1983 - 1984);
- President Reagan's Special Envoy to the Middle East (1983 - 1984);
- Member of the National Commission on the Public Service (1987 - 1990);
- Member of the National Economic Commission (1988 - 1989);
- Member of the Board of Visitors of the National Defense University (1988 - 1992);
- Member of the Commission on U.S./Japan Relations (1989 - 1991);
- FCC's High Definition Television Advisory Committee (1992 - 1993);
- Chairman, Commission on the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (1998 - 1999);
- Member of the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission (1999 - 2000); and
- Chairman of the U.S. Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization (2000).
As Middle East envoy under President Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad on December 19-20, 1983; this photo shows him shaking hands with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The US government supported the Iraq dictatorship during the Iran-Iraq war.
Fair use of photo by Getty Images
During his period as Reagan's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Rumsfeld was the main conduit for crucial American military intelligence, hardware and strategic advice to Saddam Hussein, then fighting Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. When he visited Saddam Hussein on December 19-20, 1983, they discussed a possible oil pipeline to Jordan, to be constructed by Bechtel. He did not mention Iraqi production and use of weapons of mass destruction, which would become a key issue in later invasions of the country. The Iranian government had cited several Iraqi air and ground chemical weapons attacks in the previous two months, and the Iranian news agency had reported the use of chemical weapons as early as 1981. The US State Department first condemned the use of chemical weapons in the war on March 5, 1984.
Rumsfeld's civic activities included service as a member of the National Academy of Public Administration and a member of the boards of trustees of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation, the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the National Park Foundation. He was also a member of the U.S./Russia Business Forum and Chairman of the Congressional Leadership's National Security Advisory Group.
In 1977, Rumsfeld was awarded the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld's actions have been characterized by his aggressive personality, outspoken opinions, and unique sense of humor. His press conferences are frequent, and the Secretary has developed a strong love-hate relationship with many American reporters.
Due to the stance of the German and French governments against a war in Iraq, Rumsfeld labeled these countries as part of "Old Europe" (implying that those European countries which supported the war effort were part of a newer, modern Europe). In separate remarks, he named the countries which would not be willing to support the war effort at all as Cuba, Libya and Germany. Both remarks were regarded as offensive by the respective governments. On February 27, 2003, Spanish prime minister José María Aznar personally requested of George W. Bush that he discourage Rumsfeld from speaking about European defense policy because his remarks were so widely perceived as counterproductive and inflammatory. Aznar indicated that Colin Powell would be better perceived.
The BBC Radio 4 current affairs programme Broadcasting House has been so taken by Rumsfeld's various remarks that it once held a regular slot called "The Donald Rumsfeld Soundbite of the Week" in which they played his most amusing comment from that week. Rumsfeld himself is said to have found the slot "hilarious".
Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said "Donald Rumsfeld is the most ruthless man I have ever met."