On Sept. 11, 2019, the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald reported an interesting anecdote about then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from that fateful morning.
In light of all of the vitriol that’s been directed toward him since the announcement of his death, I thought it was important to share this simple story.
On the morning of 9/11, Rumsfeld was in his office at the Pentagon watching media coverage of the nightmare that was unfolding in New York City.
Suddenly, as the secretary recounted in his 2011 memoir, the walls began shaking and he immediately understood what had happened.
Rumsfeld ran outside and “raced through smoke and jet fuel fumes to reach the crash site.” At one point, he was stopped by an Air Force lieutenant colonel who said, “You can’t go farther.”
And, as one might expect, he continued on to the site.
“Outside I found fresh air and a chaotic scene,” he wrote in his memoir. “For the first time I could see the clouds of black smoke rising from the west side of the building. I ran along the Pentagon’s perimeter, and then saw the flames.”
Rosenwald explained that the White House had been trying to locate him. The reporter cited a book titled “The Only Plane in the Sky,” a history of the attacks written by Garrett M. Graff.
Graff quotes White House aide Mary Matalin saying, “At first we thought Secretary Rumsfeld had been hit. We couldn’t get a location on the secretary of defense.”
Graff’s book also quotes Aubrey Davis, a Defense Department protective service officer, who said, “He was like the captain going down with the ship.”
Davis recalls watching Rumsfeld pick up a piece of the airplane from the rubble and saying, “This is American Airlines.”
Recollecting the crash site in his memoir, Rumsfeld wrote, “A few folks from the Pentagon were there doing what they could to assist the wounded. I saw some in uniform running back into the burning building, hoping to bring more of the injured out. ‘We need help over here,’ I heard someone say. I ran over. One young woman sitting in the grass, wounded, bruised, and a bit bloodied, looked up at me and squinted. Even though she couldn’t stand she said, ‘I can help. I can hold an IV.'”
In Graff’s book, Davis said, “The Communications Center kept asking where the secretary was and I kept saying we had him. They couldn’t hear.”
Graff interviewed Rumsfeld’s then-spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, who said, “The next thing we know, he had come in to the command center — dirty, sweaty, with his jacket over his shoulder.”
In the video below, Rumsfeld describes the morning of 9/11 from his perspective during a 2011 interview on The Daily.
“My instinct was to get back to the office and start thinking through what steps might be needed. If we’ve had three attacks, what might be the next one?”
Anticipating that the White House or the Capitol building might be the next target, he said they launched armed aircraft that would be forced to shoot down an airplane headed for either of those buildings.
“Which would have been a terrible thing to have to do. As you can imagine, an American airliner filled with innocent men, women and children,” Rumsfeld continued. “Thanks to that wonderful group of brave passengers in the aircraft that they brought down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. That plane very likely headed towards the seat of political power. They’d already attacked the seat of military power, the seat of economic power in New York.
“It was a terrible day and I made a decision to not evacuate the building and have nonessential personnel leave. But I was reluctant to leave the terrorists with the impression that they’d shut down the U.S. Department of Defense. It just didn’t seem like a good idea to me. In the back of my mind, I just thought it was not a good picture for the world to see the Secretary of Defense leaving to some undisclosed site and I felt it was important to be there.”
Donald Rumsfeld was not the villain he is being portrayed as.
Many Americans forget the mood of the country following the 9/11 attacks. The majority of Americans wanted revenge.
Yes, Rumsfeld arguably made some missteps. Every leader does at some point. Former President Barack Obama made a lot of missteps.
But on the morning America was attacked, Rumsfeld showed true leadership. He remained inside the Pentagon, working hard to prevent another catastrophe and to manage an overwhelming situation. He was also fully aware that a second hit on the Pentagon could occur at any moment, just as it had at the World Trade Center.
Donald Rumsfeld was fallible, but he was also a leader and a patriot.
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