Close-Up: Young Rumsfeld

The Donald Rumsfeld of thirty years ago was a lot like the man we know today—a divisive figure who relishes bureaucratic combat, aims to shake up the established order, and is tenaciously committed to his own ideas and ambitions. But he was also a social moderate and a dove

During the midday hours of Wednesday, April 7, 1971, Richard Nixon was sitting in his office hideaway in the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, attempting to prepare himself for that night's prime-time presidential address to the nation. The subject, as usual, was Vietnam. And yet as Nixon went over the speech with his two top aides—Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser, and H. R. ("Bob") Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff—the conversation kept returning to a different topic: namely, what the President, with growing irritation, called "the Rumsfeld problem." Nixon was thinking of getting rid of Donald H. Rumsfeld, a former congressman who was then serving on the White House domestic-policy staff. "I think Rumsfeld may be not too long for this world," he said, adding, a few minutes later, "Let's dump him."

The problem was that from Nixon and Kissinger's perspective, Rumsfeld was becoming a troublesome antiwar advocate. Rumsfeld had emerged at the center of a small group of Administration officials, all of them involved with domestic policy, who were asking in staff meetings why the Administration could not move more quickly to end the war. The internal opponents also included George Shultz, the director of the Office of Management and Budget; Clark MacGregor, the counselor for congressional relations; and John Ehrlichman, the special assistant to the President for domestic affairs.

"They don't know a god-damn thing about foreign policy!" Nixon had said to Kissinger on the telephone a day earlier. "They're only concerned about, frankly, peace at any price, really. Because all they're concerned with is, well, revenue-sharing and the environment and all that crap—which doesn't amount to anything, in my opinion." Kissinger had concurred, saying, "They don't know what we'll be hit with if this whole thing comes apart."

The Vietnam War had reached a new milestone the previous week: it had now claimed more American lives than the Korean War. Vietnam had thus become the fourth most lethal conflict in American history, after the Civil War and the two world wars. At home it was creating ever greater upheaval on college campuses, in the streets of major cities, and in American politics. That spring a new round of antiwar protests was building. The Democratic senator Edmund Muskie was gearing up to run against Nixon in 1972 and was challenging him on the war; polls showed that he was even with or ahead of the President. Even Republicans in Congress were becoming restive; earlier in the month nine Republican senators had met with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird at the home of Senator Jacob Javits, of New York, to plead for an end to the war.

For nearly two months Rumsfeld had been seeking some new role in the Administration in which he could influence policy on Vietnam. In the process he had become a particular annoyance to Kissinger. Rumsfeld's first attempt—in a memo to Nixon dated February 27, 1971—was to propose the appointment of a special presidential envoy "to review and report on postwar Southeast Asia during the winding down of hostilities." The detailed memo left no doubt that Rumsfeld had himself in mind for this job. The special envoy could lay the groundwork for the postwar reconstruction of Southeast Asia, Rumsfeld argued; and he insisted that such an envoy would not intrude on Kissinger's turf as National Security Adviser. Rumsfeld told Nixon that making such an appointment "would focus attention and emphasis on Indo-China peace instead of Indo-China war." He was asking Nixon, in bureaucratic language, to give peace a chance.

Henry Kissinger was not about to yield any authority over Vietnam policy to this pushy politician. Kissinger's deputy, Alexander Haig, first postponed any response to Rumsfeld's Nixon memo for weeks, and then sent a reply saying that introducing a special envoy "would confuse our allies as to who was doing what." Undaunted, Rumsfeld broached the idea again in a one-on-one Oval Office meeting with Nixon. The President brushed him off and suggested instead that Rumsfeld broaden his foreign-policy experience with a brief mission overseas. "It might be better from your standpoint—I think you want to take a trip to Europe," he told Rumsfeld. The trip, ostensibly for the purpose of exchanging ideas with European officials about drug abuse, was scheduled for later that spring.

But Rumsfeld did not let go of Vietnam. On the morning of April 7 he pressed Kissinger, in the presence of other White House staff members, for an explanation of why the Administration couldn't move more quickly to bring the war to a close. Afterward Kissinger grumbled to the President that Rumsfeld had never quite said exactly what he wanted Nixon to do. He had never called specifically for Nixon to set a "date certain" for the end of the war (as Nixon's critics were requesting), and had spoken only vaguely of setting a date by which the United States would reduce its presence in Vietnam to a "residual force." It was this challenge at the staff meeting, and Rumsfeld's stance on Vietnam, that prompted Nixon to talk about firing him. The President also worried that Rumsfeld might quit first.

"He's ready to jump the ship," Nixon said at his later meeting with Haldeman and Kissinger.

"No, I don't think he's ready to jump," Haldeman replied. "And I doubt if he ever would, just because [staying on in the Administration] serves his interests more than not. But I don't think he's ever going to be a solid member of the ship." "He's just positioning himself to be close to The Washington Post and The New York Times," Kissinger interjected.

Nixon returned to business. "Well, then let's dump him right after this," he said. "Good God, we're sending him and [the White House adviser Robert] Finch on a two-month holiday to Europe. Shit. For what purpose?"

"To get him out of town," Kissinger said, gently reminding his boss that Rumsfeld's "holiday" in Europe had originally been their idea.

Nixon tried to go back to rehearsing that night's speech, in which he would announce that he planned to withdraw 100,000 Americans from Vietnam by the end of the year, but would also explicitly refuse to set a date for the end of the war. Still, he couldn't put Rumsfeld out of his mind.

"Coming back to the Rumsfeld problem—I'm disappointed in Don, Bob," he told Haldeman a few minutes later. "Understand, I don't want to be disappointed, just because—I don't want somebody who's just with us, God damn it, when things are going good, you know what I mean? If he thinks we're going down the tubes, and he's just going to ride with us, maybe he's going to take a trip to Europe occasionally—then screw him, you know?"

What galled Nixon especially was that Rumsfeld, who was viewed as one of the Administration's most effective public speakers, refused to go out and defend the Nixon Administration to the American people. "He won't step up to anything," Nixon grumbled. "We have given him, time and time again, opportunities to step up, and he will not step up and kick the ball."

Haldeman agreed. "I used to think at one point he was a potential presidential contender, but he isn't," he said.

"He's like Finch," Nixon said. "They both have the charisma for national office, but neither has got the backbone."

Rumsfeld was one of several aides Nixon talked about dumping but never did. The President's irritation with him eventually subsided, and he remained in the Administration until its premature end. The Vietnam episode provides an illuminating glimpse of his work in the Nixon Administration and contradicts some of the simplistic perceptions Americans have since had of Rumsfeld.

During the following three decades Rumsfeld came to be viewed as an ardent hawk, a champion of U.S. military power. That perception does not fit the early phases of his career, when, as a fervent proponent of domestic reform, he was a moderate-to-liberal force within the Nixon Administration. His dovish views suited his political ambitions: the war was unpopular, and as an adviser on domestic policy, he had no personal or professional stake in winning it. Indeed, Rumsfeld, who throughout his government career has seemed to relish bureaucratic combat, may have viewed Vietnam as an issue on which he could challenge Kissinger's primacy within the government (something he later did with greater success in his more hawkish guise during the Ford Administration).

Over the years another assumption about Rumsfeld has taken hold: that he had no connection to the seamier side of Nixon's presidency—the bare-knuckle apparatus that waged combat with Nixon's political enemies. This assumption arose in part from the fact that Rumsfeld was appointed the ambassador to NATO and was thus thousands of miles away, in Europe, during 1973-1974, when the Watergate scandal crested and Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford, an old friend, who brought Rumsfeld back to Washington to take charge of the White House staff after Nixon's resignation, helped to foster this perception. "He wouldn't tolerate political shenanigans," Ford wrote in his memoirs, "and the men around Nixon knew he wouldn't, so to protect themselves, they kept him out of the loop."

Nixon's secret White House tape recordings reveal a more complex reality, however. Rumsfeld was not entirely divorced from Nixon's political operations. There is no sign that he was involved in any of the illegalities of Watergate, but he was willing to offer Nixon other help of a not particularly exalted nature—some dirt on political enemies, some covert ties with a prominent pollster. The Nixon tapes reveal that Rumsfeld often worked with and was a special favorite of John Mitchell and Charles Colson, Nixon's roughest political operators, who viewed Rumsfeld as savvier than other White House aides. Indeed, when Nixon first considered naming Rumsfeld the NATO ambassador, in the summer of 1971, Mitchell urged the President to keep him around until after the election, and Nixon decided Mitchell was right. "Let me say this—he has done some good political stuff for Mitchell," Nixon told Haldeman about Rumsfeld at one point. "He'll cooperate. NATO's fine, but it pulls him out of politics ... He's an operator." In short, the tapes demonstrate that Rumsfeld was not nearly so marginal a figure in Nixon's political apparatus as he was later portrayed.

Nixon and Rumsfeld seem to have formed a curious but strong bond early on. Rumsfeld saw Nixon as a mentor. In a series of lengthy one-on-one conversations in the White House, Rumsfeld repeatedly sought both to advance to a Cabinet job and to obtain Nixon's advice on his political career. Rumsfeld was, of course, gaining private tutelage from America's most skilled political infighter.

Nixon valued Rumsfeld too. From his perspective, Rumsfeld stood in a different category from Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kissinger: as a former congressman, Rumsfeld was the only senior White House staff member who had repeatedly subjected himself, as Nixon had, to the hazards and potential public humiliations of running for elective office. Nixon's political defeats in 1960 and 1962 and his long, acrimony-filled career had left the President with not only a strain of self-pity but also a strong sense of personal identification with other politicians. Haldeman and Ehrlichman loathed Rumsfeld for his ambition and his self-promotion, but for Nixon these qualities did not count against Rumsfeld. Moreover, Nixon thought Rumsfeld was a good public face for the Administration and hoped to make use of him, especially to court voters on college campuses and in America's suburbs. "He's young, he's thirty-nine years old, he's a hell of a spokesman," Nixon said.

Presented by

James Mann, an author and former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, is senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from his book Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, to be published in April.

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