Making history: The life and times of Donald Henry Rumsfeld

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Originally published by National Review

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July 9, 2021, would have been Donald Rumsfeld’s 89th birthday, had he not passed away last week at the age of 88. Always keenly aware of history and his role in it, when he approached 80 a decade ago, he was fond of reminding those of us then privileged to work with him on his memoirs that he had lived through about one-third of American history. As a historian (“An art historian — of all things!” as Rumsfeld would say), I found it particularly instructive to examine six key events he personally interacted with between 1941 and 2001. This era contained one of the most remarkable series of experiences in our nation’s history. It also traced the trajectory of Rumsfeld’s own life, from a small child observing history to a senior statesman shaping its outcome. Having served as Rumsfeld’s archivist and director of research for his memoir, Known and Unknown, I had the opportunity to personally discuss all these events with him, with sometimes surprising outcomes.

December 6, 1941: Pearl Harbor

Rumsfeld’s first close encounter with history came on December 7, 1941, when he was nine years old. He and his father George were listening to their beloved Chicago Bears on the radio when an announcer broke in to report the massive Imperial Japanese attack on the U.S. naval facility at Pearl Harbor. Don’s childhood had been quiet and sheltered; the visceral shock of this unknown and unexpected attack would stay with him for the rest of his life. It also brought immediate and dramatic changes. George Rumsfeld, slight of stature and 39 years old, resolved to join the Navy and eventually persuaded his local recruiting office to accept him. His small family of Don, daughter Joan, and wife Jennette moved west to Coronado, Calif. The newly minted Lieutenant Rumsfeld then shipped off to the Pacific Theater, leaving his family, like so many other young families, to cope as best they could under unfamiliar and difficult circumstances.

At the time, Don had little context for events beyond his own personal experiences. He recalled being distressed when President Franklin Roosevelt’s death was announced on his school loudspeaker, even as some of his classmates, whose parents were no doubt partisan Republicans, cheered. But as he explains in Known and Unknown, “In my young mind, FDR was tied to my father, his ship, our country, and the war. I cried.”

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Victoria Coates
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