Born on 9 July 1932 in Chicago, Donald H. Rumsfeld graduated from Princeton University in 1954 and then spent three years in the U.S. Navy as an aviator and flight instructor. Following naval service, Rumsfeld worked in Washington as an assistant to two different congressmen and then, between 1960 and 1962, at a Chicago investment banking firm. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1962, he was reelected for three more terms.
In 1969, he resigned from Congress to join the Nixon administration as an assistant to the president and director of the Office of Economic Opportunity; later he served as counselor to the president and director of the Cost of Living Council. In February 1973 he became U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, returning to Washington in August 1974 to head Gerald Ford’s transition team and then became assistant to the president, directing the White House Office of Operations and serving as coordinator of the White House staff. At the time of his designation as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld was one of President Ford’s closest associates and advisors.
Sworn in on 20 November 1975, at age 43 the youngest secretary of defense to date, Rumsfeld served exactly 14 months in the office. Although he instituted some organizational changes at the Pentagon, including appointment of a second deputy secretary of defense (a position created in 1972 but never previously filled) and consolidation of several offices in OSD, Rumsfeld concentrated more on the political aspects of his job. More than any of his predecessors, he served as a roving ambassador for the Defense Department, traveling widely in the United States and abroad and discussing defense issues through numerous speeches, press conferences, and interviews.
Although he supported the Ford administration’s efforts at d–tente, Rumsfeld, like Schlesinger, sought to reverse the gradual decline in the Defense budget and to build up U.S. strategic and conventional forces. He made clear his agreement with Schlesinger’s strategic and budget initiatives and that he would press forward with them. He pointed out in his FY 1977 annual report that “U.S. strategic forces retain a substantial credible capability to deter an all-out nuclear attack,” but he indicated three areas of concern: (1) U.S. submarine and bomber forces were aging while Soviet capabilities in antisubmarine and bomber defense were improving: (2) because of Soviet progress in offensive and defensive programs there was danger that Soviet strategic capability would be perceived as superior to that of the United States; and (3) “a continuation of current Soviet strategic programs . . . could threaten the survivability of the Minuteman force within a decade.” Rumsfeld used the phrase “rough equivalence” to compare the current military capabilities of the United States and the Soviet Union. He noted that trends in comparative U.S.-Soviet military strength had not favored the United States for 15 to 20 years, and that if continued they “would have the effect of injecting a fundamental instability in the world.”
To maintain strategic parity with the Soviet Union, Rumsfeld moved ahead with several proposed weapon systems–the B-1 manned bomber to replace the B-52, the Trident nuclear submarine program, and the MX ICBM to succeed the Minuteman in the 1980s. He personally piloted a test version of the B-1 bomber and authorized the Air Force to execute the initial contracts for its production. Rumsfeld paid close attention to NATO, regularly attending meetings of its Nuclear Planning Group and its Defense Planning Committee and stressing the alliance’s importance in the deterrence of the Soviet Union. While supporting the current SALT negotiations, he did not consider the proposed SALT II settlement a final solution to Soviet-American rivalry and emphasized the need to maintain military equivalence.
Given these views and initiatives, increasing the DoD budget became an imperative for Rumsfeld. He spent his first few weeks in office completing the proposed FY 1977 budget. In spite of his previous differences with Schlesinger over budget matters, President Ford agreed with Rumsfeld’s arguments that U.S. force levels and Defense expenditures had been decreasing in real terms for several years and that building real growth into the FY 1977 budget was essential to the nation’s security. Congress generally cooperated, although it cut some funds Rumsfeld wanted, including those proposed for shipbuilding. Ultimately, total obligational authority in the FY 1977 budget was set at $107.5 billion. Still, in constant dollars the FY 1977 budget was $5 billion less than it had been in FY 1956.
Rumsfeld continued his efforts to augment funding in preparing the FY 1978 Defense budget. When Ford presented his new budget to Congress just before leaving office, he proposed another increase for the DoD. However, during the 1976 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter had criticized Ford administration Defense spending and urged a substantial decrease. Thus the final FY 1978 TOA for the Department of Defense amounted to $116.1 billion, an increase in the current dollar amount but a slight decrease in constant dollars. While Rumsfeld maintained the momentum begun by Schlesinger to halt the decline in Defense spending, his brief term and the change in administration limited his success.
An active secretary of defense, Rumsfeld remained very close to the president and very much in the public eye. Had Ford been reelected in 1976 it is likely that he would have retained Rumsfeld, who left office with the president on 20 January 1977. After briefly teaching at Northwestern University, Rumsfeld became president and chief executive officer (1977–1985) of G.D. Searle and Company, a health care concern based in Illinois. He continued to write and speak about defense issues, stressing the need for adequate spending in order to maintain equivalence with the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld opposed the 1979 SALT II treaty, believing that it was not advantageous to the United States. Between November 1983 and May 1984 Rumsfeld served President Ronald Reagan as special ambassador to the Middle East. After leaving Searle in 1985 Rumsfeld held executive positions with a number of corporations.
Rumsfeld became the first individual to hold the position twice when President George W. Bush appointed him Secretary of Defense on 20 January 2001. Rumsfeld’s second term, which is discussed in a separate essay, ended on 18 December 2006.