Donald Rumsfeld: Tough man for a tough time

Gordon England in 2015 for a Fort Worth Business article. Credit: Jon P. Uzzel/Business Press Archives

Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense for Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush, was the most qualified Secretary of Defense ever, said Gordon England, former head of General Dynamics Fort Worth and then of Lockheed Fort Worth who worked for Rumsfeld three times in Washington. Rumsfeld died July 6, 2021, at his home in Taos, N.M. He was 88.

“He knew the Congress because he had been in the Congress, knew the White House because he had been Chief of Staff. He knew international, he had been an ambassador. He knew the military, he had been in the military. And he had knew DOD because he had been Secretary of Defense years before,” England said July 2.

England became the 72nd Secretary of the Navy on May 24, 2001. He would go on to serve twice as Secretary of the Navy, as deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and as the 29th Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Not all who knew Rumsfeld were as charitable of his performance in office as England.

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“Most of the people who criticize have never been on the floor of the arena, and he spent most of his life on the floor of the arena,” England said. “I don’t know, history may decide. Did he make all the right decisions or not? But nobody makes all the right decisions.”

The world changed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, England said.

Rumsfeld was extraordinarily knowledgeable and extraordinarily tough when he needed to be.

“The nation was at war so he was tough, and I think that reputation was probably well-earned,” England said. “He was highly analytic. He wanted to know the reasons behind people’s recommendations. He didn’t want somebody just walking in saying, ‘Boss, here’s something we should do.’ He wanted to know all the detail. He wanted to discuss it. He challenged people all the time.”

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On the other hand, he was a very caring person, humorous and fun to be with.

England noted that many of the decisions Rumsfeld is criticized for are not decisions made solely by the secretary of defense.

“Major decisions are not made [solely] by the secretary. They’re made by secretary of state, they’re made by National Security Council, the president, vice president. A lot of hands in those bowls. So he gets criticized a lot, and frankly he took a lot of the heat,” England said.

Something people don’t realize is that the reduction in military spending – the so-called Peace Dividend after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 – came mostly in the Department of Defense.

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“So when we came in, the military was in dismal shape. I mean literally, the Army didn’t have bullets. Air Force didn’t have smart weapons. They couldn’t afford it. The Navy, when a ship came in, another ship couldn’t go out until they had transferred all the yellow gear – that is all the maintenance care – because we didn’t have enough maintenance gear to go on all these ships,” England said.

His first assignment as Navy secretary was to find the money to steam ships and fly airplanes the last quarter of the year. England worked with Congress to get a supplemental appropriation that allowed the service to get through the last quarter of the year.

“But that’s how bad things were when he came in. And then shortly after, of course, 9/11. We had troops in combat, so Rumsfeld literally built the military while engaging in combat. I mean, tough, tough positions to be in,” England said. “In my view, he was extraordinarily competent, did a lot of good things. Obviously, like everybody else, didn’t do everything right. But I thought he did a terrific job and I was proud to serve with him.”

And there were the snowflakes in the Pentagon – Rumsfeld’s memos to subordinates.

“Every day he was always questioning everything. ‘Why are we doing this? I don’t understand this. Seems like we could do this better.’ So every day he would dictate questions or comments or inputs. And they would get typed up by a secretary and they would go out to whoever they were addressed to. Did it every day,” England said.

He thinks he read it in Rumsfeld’s book that in six years he put out 20,000 snowflakes.

“It’s close to 10 a day, but that was the kind of person Rumsfeld was. He was always challenging everything. ‘Justify this. Why are we doing this? I don’t understand this. This sounds too confusing. Why can’t we simplify it?’ That’s the way he was and people responded.”