Three unknown knowns: Vale Donald Rumsfeld

Like many of my era, I came of age politically in the shadow of 911.

Donald Rumsfeld was a key figure in this period.

To ‘get a grip’ on things, I read as much as I could from someone who, as twice-US Secretary of Defense, and a former Congressman, could impart a great deal.

Remembered exclusively by some as the sole ‘architect’ of the Iraq War, or the puzzled source of ‘unknown knowns’ – an easily dismissed but highly philosophical point – I found Rumsfeld offered a great deal more.

There are three things that stood out to me, which have more to do with the man himself than the politics, events and commentary around him.

The first was his early professional life.

I remember thinking that the youngest US Secretary of Defense (1975 to 1977 in the Ford Administration) would, from his first days in an office, be brimming with confidence and immune from anxiety about stepping into new roles.

But as a young administrative assistant to Ohio Congressman David Dennison in the late 1950s, Rumsfeld often found himself wracked with nerves at various office responsibilities and not quite knowing how to do certain tasks, often under tight timeframes and with little help.

“Almost every night I would go home with my stomach in knots,” he wrote in his memoirs.

It gave me a great deal of confidence when reading this in my early professional years that, even those that rise to the top get off to slow starts, and certainly don’t ‘know it all’ from their first days or years on the job.

The second thing I recall was from a book by Rumsfeld’s former speechwriter, and speechwriter for George W. Bush, Matt Latimer.

Latimer recounts a small moment at the Pentagon in his book Speech-Less worth sharing:

“And I was in one of the meetings when we were working on this testimony and the president called Rumsfeld, and the secretary asked me and others to leave the room for a moment, but as we were leaving, some of us overheard him say to the president, you know, ‘I just don’t want to be a rock in your knapsack’. And what he was saying was, I don’t want to be a burden to you. And in fact what had happened was, we found out later, he had just offered to resign and he offered to resign twice to the president during the Abu Ghraib crisis, scandal, and he never really said that at the time.”

It was a gentle moment of humility from someone whose style, especially toward the end of his days in Washington DC, was no doubt confrontational.

The third and final lesson is something I only came across recently, which was supposedly ‘the best memo’ that Rumsfeld ever read in his six decades at the highest levels of politics.

Written by Pentagon analyst Lin Wells, the declassified memo is available as part of the Rumsfeld Library.

Titled ‘Predicting the future’, and at only one-page, it is remarkably insightful, cascading by decade on the major shifts throughout the twentieth century.

For example:

  • If you had been a security policy-maker in the world’s greatest power in 1900, you would have been a Brit, looking warily at your age-old enemy, France.
  • By 1910, you would be allied with France and your enemy would be Germany.

And fast forwarding:

  • By 1980, the Soviets were in Afghanistan, Iran was in the throes of revolution, there was talk of our “hollow forces” and a “window of vulnerability,” and the U.S. was the greatest creditor nation the world had ever seen.
  • By 1990, the Soviet Union was within a year of dissolution, American forces in the Desert were on the verge of showing they were anything but hollow, the U.S. had become the greatest debtor nation the world had ever known, and almost no one had heard of the internet.

Indeed, with Covid-19 and the events of the last 12 months, all of us appreciate how things change.

Sometimes, however, these don’t have to be grand lessons of history.

They include personal lessons too.

Image source: ABC News

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