June 25, 2010
America exists and prospers because members of the U.S. armed forces step forward and protect it, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said here today. "In a very real sense,” he said, “America is their gift to the future."
Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon for the unveiling of his official portrait at a ceremony hosted by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
“This country – which has treated me so well – exists and prospers because the members of the United States armed forces have volunteered to step forward and protect it,” Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld served as the 13th defense secretary from 1975 to 1977 and as the 21st secretary from 2001 to 2006. He is both the youngest and oldest man to serve as defense secretary.
Both of his official portraits will hang in the Pentagon. The newest, painted by Steven Polson and unveiled today, shows Rumsfeld at his stand-up desk with a picture of first-responders and soldiers unfurling the flag over the still-burning Pentagon on Sept. 12, 2001.
The unveiling ceremony was a veritable who’s who. Former defense secretaries William Cohen and Frank Carlucci attended. Retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers and retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace – who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff alongside Rumsfeld - were there with their wives. Former deputy secretaries Paul Wolfowitz and Gordon England, retired Air Force Gen. Joe Ralston, retired Navy Adm. Vern Clark, retired Navy Adm. Ed Giambastiani, former senior Pentagon correspondent Charlie Aldinger, and many more friends attended the event.
Gates noted that the Defense Department is one place in Washington where there is a degree of consistency and continuity, even as administrations and political parties change. The men who have served as defense secretary have experiences in common including “the challenges we face; the obstacles we have to overcome within this building and across the river; the changes we pursue to better-protect this country and do right by its men and women in uniform,” Gates said.
The secretary pointed out that Rumsfeld began his second stint as defense secretary on Jan. 20, 2001, with a mandate to transform the U.S. defense establishment from its Cold War posture, attitudes and moorings to a force ready to confront the threats of the 21st century.
“On a bright Tuesday morning in September, eight months into President [George W.] Bush’s first term, a decade of slumber in a holiday from history came to a crashing halt,” Gates said. “This country and this military learned how dangerous and unpredictable this new era could be, and saw in the starkest terms how necessary was the task of transforming this department to meet these challenges.”
Rumsfeld inspired, educated and often charmed a wounded nation, the secretary said. Rumsfeld’s first action on 9/11 was to rush to the aid of those killed and wounded in the attack. In the days and months after the attack, Americans heard straight talk from the podium about how the military really was going to “kill” America’s enemies – “jarring stuff for a country grown accustomed to euphemisms and political correctness,” Gates said.
And the world saw the rapid removal of two odious regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In addition to fighting America’s enemies, Rumsfeld “simultaneously and doggedly pursued an agenda of institutional transformation and reform – grappling with inertia and vested interests like the champion wrestler he once was,” Gates said. “The result is an American military that has become more agile, lethal, and prepared to deal with the full spectrum of conflict.”
Rumsfeld famously brought his own unique and bracing style of personal management to the Pentagon bureaucracy, Gates noted, citing Rumsfeld’s habit of sending handwritten memos to his aides, who called them “snowflakes.”
Military and civilian employees “soon discovered that snowflakes really could fall from above in the middle of August,” Gates said. “Self-described as ‘genetically impatient,’ [Rumsfeld] did not brook much nonsense or suffer fools gladly – as many an unprepared briefer would find out the hard way.”
Rumsfeld, who will be 78 next week, joked that he has been alive for almost a third of the existence of the republic.
“I’ve seen our country in times of depression, prosperity, peace and turmoil, [through] exhilarating triumphs and agonizing wars,” he said. “In my lifetime, our national leaders have had to tackle the worst economic depression, order troops into combat against the longest of odds on islands in the Pacific and battlefields in Europe, win legislative struggles that belatedly but finally brought equality to millions of Americans, right our battered ship of state after the Vietnam War and Watergate and win a 50-year struggle against a communist empire of boundless ambition an ideology of discredited lies.
“And we’ve seen this great nation take the offense after a devastating terrorist attack – one that shook the foundation of this building now almost nine years ago,” he added.
America has survived all these crises “because we are a free people, blessed with a free economic system, a free political system,” Rumsfeld said. “We’re free to think and to act, to believe and to protest, to vote and petition, and yes, free to succeed, free to fail and free to start again.”
The former defense secretary spoke about his favorite photo that brightly illustrates what freedom can accomplish: it is a satellite photo of the Korean peninsula taken at night. The free South Korea is bathed in light. In the communist North, a small glimmer of light is seen around the capital city of Pyongyang – otherwise the country is dark.
“They are exactly the same people north and south, exactly the same resources north and south, but those millions of Koreans who labor in the north work not for their families, but for a regime that enslaves them,” Rumsfeld said.
The United States is free and the people of America are free to make their own choices, he pointed out.
“We can choose to engage the world and strengthen alliances with our friends and our trading relations, deter potential foes and to take the fight to them when necessary,” Rumsfeld said. “Or we can retreat and make the tragic mistake of modeling our country after failing systems. If we choose the latter, let there be no doubt, we are certain to fail the generations that follow.”
Rumsfeld said it was important to him and his wife, Joyce, that his second official portrait includes the photo of the Pentagon workers unfurling the American flag.
“It shows that the traits of resilience and perseverance – while remarkable – are not uncommon in those in this department,” he said. “Those traits are what sustained this country, and what I saw every day in the men and women I served alongside months and years after the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history.”