Rumsfeld died at his home in Taos, New Mexico, and was surrounded by family at the time of his death, the Rumsfeld family said. No cause of death was immediately provided.
“History may remember him for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service, but for those who knew him best and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country,” the family said in their statement.
Rumsfeld held the distinction of being the youngest person to ever serve as secretary of defense and the second oldest to serve in the position. He served as defense secretary under then-President Gerald Ford in the 1970s and under then-President George W. Bush in the early 2000s.
It was his second stint in the role that would come to define Rumsfeld’s legacy in Washington.
He oversaw two conflicts: Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. The conflicts complicated Rumsfeld’s standing at home and abroad, and he was ultimately driven out of the position because of his role in the Iraq war, which was widely denounced as a quagmire with no clear strategy, especially when violence on the streets of Iraq grew.
Many also held Rumsfeld responsible for the detainee abuse scandal in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
The waves of criticism aimed at Rumsfeld were a considerable departure from the praise he garnered in the hours following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld had been inside the Pentagon when it was struck by a hijacked plane, killing 184 people. He rushed to help evacuate the injured until his security team begged him to go back inside.
“We have taken a series of measures to prevent further attacks and to determine who is responsible,” he said at the time.
Bush lauded his former defense secretary as an “exemplary public servant and a very good man” in a statement on Wednesday.
Rumsfeld, Bush said, “never paled before tough decisions, and never flinched from responsibility. He brought needed and timely reforms to the Department of Defense, along with a management style that stressed original thinking and accountability.”
“As Commander in Chief, I especially appreciated how Don took his job personally and always looked out for the interests of our servicemen and women. He was a faithful steward of our armed forces, and the United States of America is safer and better off for his service,” Bush added.
Born in Chicago in 1932, Rumsfeld was both a college wrestler at Princeton and a Navy pilot — skills that served him well in later life as he grappled with and navigated through a complicated political landscape.
This story is breaking and will be updated.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, Jamie Gangel and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.