A Look at Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Legacy, Following His Death at 88

Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the National Press Club in 2004, has died at age 88, according to a statement released by his family. FRONTLINE chronicled the influence of the former U.S. secretary of defense in a number of documentaries. Photographer: Ken Cedeno/Bloomberg

Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the National Press Club in 2004, has died at age 88, according to a statement released by his family. FRONTLINE chronicled the influence of the former U.S. secretary of defense in a number of documentaries. Photographer: Ken Cedeno/Bloomberg

June 30, 2021

Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense under both Gerald Ford and George W. Bush and was a major figure in shaping the post-9/11 U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has died at age 88, according to a statement released by his family Wednesday.

In the 2004 documentary Rumsfeld’s War, FRONTLINE and The Washington Post traced Donald Rumsfeld’s career from his time as an adviser to President Richard Nixon to his rise as the oft-seen and well-known face of the George W. Bush administration during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary, lauded Rumsfeld’s immediate response to 9/11, citing Rumsfeld’s efforts to help rescue injured personnel from the Pentagon in the wake of the plane crash. “He runs toward it,” Hamre told FRONTLINE for the 2004 film. “That’s what he does. He runs in to a problem. He doesn’t run from a problem.”

Andrew Krepinevich, a former member of the National Defense Panel, echoed Hamre: “That certainly earns him a big gold star, I think, in terms of the uniformed military; personal courage counts for a lot.”

The 2004 documentary, produced by Michael Kirk with Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser, also investigated Rumsfeld’s contentious battle with the Pentagon bureaucracy to assert civilian control of the military and to remake the way America fought.

“Rumsfeld thinks you can re-invent [the] war plan,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward told FRONTLINE at the time. “And anything that smacks of the old way or something that looks conventional to him, he asks questions about. Doesn’t necessarily oppose it, but will ask questions about it, and is looking to make this quicker, with less force and with less casualties.”

That would not turn out to be the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld’s critics alleged that his push for unconventional thinking effectively marginalized advice about troop strength, post-war planning and the treatment of prisoners.

Though Rumsfeld’s War is not currently available online, you can explore a timeline of Rumsfeld’s life published in 2004 and read interviews about him with key Bush administration officials, former military leaders and reporters from The Washington Post. And watch these FRONTLINE documentaries for a look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rumsfeld’s role.

Truth, War & Consequences

This 2003 film from producers Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria traced the roots of the Iraq War back to the days immediately following 9/11, when Rumsfeld ordered the creation of a special intelligence operation to quietly begin looking for evidence that would justify the war. The film shows how the intelligence reports soon became a part of a continuing struggle between civilians in the Pentagon, on one side, and the CIA, State Department and uniformed military on the other — a struggle that would lead to inadequate planning for the aftermath of the war, continuing violence and mounting political problems for President George W. Bush.

The Dark Side

This 2006 film from producers Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, with Mike Wiser, explored how then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and others saw Iraq as an important part of a broader plan to remake the Middle East and project American power worldwide. It traced how Rumsfeld was Cheney’s primary ally in a post-9/11 push to expand presidential power, transform America’s intelligence agencies and bring the war on terror to Iraq. “You have this wiring diagram that we all know of about national security, but now there’s a new line on it. There’s a line from the vice president directly to the secretary of defense, and it’s as though there’s a private line, private communication between those two,” former National Security Council staffer Richard Clarke told FRONTLINE.

Bush’s War

Part 1

Part 2

This 2008 film from producers Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, with co-producer Mike Wiser, explored the saga of 9/11 and Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, told through the political dramas that played out at the highest levels of U.S. government — including Donald Rumsfeld’s role from the start. “The night of 9/11, at a small group meeting of the principals, Rumsfeld actually puts Iraq on the table and says: ‘Part of our response maybe should be attacking Iraq. It’s an opportunity,’” Bob Woodward told FRONTLINE in the film.

Losing Iraq

This 2014 documentary from producers Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser examined mistakes and missed opportunities from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq onward. General Jack Keane, acting U.S. Army chief of staff when the Iraq insurgency began following the U.S. invasion, told FRONTLINE the strategy drafted by Secretary Rumsfeld and commanding general Tommy Franks did not include adequate plans for securing the country. “In ’03, from a military perspective, from the time we took the regime down, we never made a commitment to secure the population. And we never had enough resources to do it,” he said.

Stream more than 300 documentaries in their entirety in FRONTLINE’s online film archive

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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