But he has never been one for speaking softly, as proven this month by comments that offended both American veterans and European allies. The two sets of remarks were characteristic of the tough talking defense secretary, who often chuckles through press conferences and rarely minces words.
At a Jan. 7 briefing, a reporter asked Rumsfeld about calls to reinstate the military draft. Some members of Congress say a draft would make America's fighting force more reflective of its population.
Rumsfeld opposes the effort, and sought to explain why.
"If you think back to when we had the draft, people were brought in; they were paid some fraction of what they could make in the civilian manpower market because they were without choices," he said. "Big categories were exempted — people that were in college, people that were teaching, people that were married. It varied from time to time, but there were all kinds of exemptions.
"And what was left was sucked into the intake, trained for a period of months, and then went out, adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time, because the churning that took place, it took enormous amount of effort in terms of training, and then they were gone," he continued.
The suggestion that veterans of past wars "added no value, no advantage" rubbed some people the wrong way.
"These remarks defame the honorable and distinguished service of over 1.7 million draftees during the Vietnam Era," Thomas H. Corey, head of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said on Jan. 15. "The secretary's comments are without foundation at best and insulting at worst."
"Secretary Rumsfeld should know that the Vietnam War could not have continued for 10 years without a military draft of honorable Americans who accepted their military obligation as citizens of this great country," Corey added.
On Tuesday, the uproar prompted Rumsfeld to clarify his comments, as well as to put some of the blame for the reaction on people who "misinterpreted" what he said.
"I did not say they added no value while they were serving. They added great value," he said. "I always have had the highest respect for their service, and I offer my full apology to any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks when I said them, or who may have read any of the articles or columns that have attempted to take my words and suggest they were disparaging."
Rumsfeld said what he meant was "that we should lengthen tours of duty and careers for our all-volunteer forces, so that these highly trained men and women in uniform can serve in specific assignments longer, and also not be forced to leave the service when they are at the peak of their skills and knowledge."
"It is painful for anyone, and certainly a public servant whose words are carried far and wide, to have a comment so unfortunately misinterpreted," he added.
Rumsfeld turned his attention overseas Wednesday, when he was asked about whether objections France and Germany have raised to any immediate war on Iraq would leave the United States without European support.
"Now, you're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east," the secretary said.
French officials took offense at being placed in the "old" category, and thought the statement reflected what they see as typical American arrogance. Finance Minister Francis Mer said he was "profoundly vexed" by the remarks.
"I wanted to remind everyone that this 'old Europe' has resilience, and is capable of bouncing back," Mer told LCI television. "And it will show it, in time."
"If you knew what I feel like telling him, to Mr. Rumsfeld…" said Ecology Minister Roselyne Bachelot on Europe-1 radio. She then stopped herself and said the word would be too offensive to publish.
It is not clear yet whether Rumsfeld will clarify his remarks on Europe as he did his comments on the draft.
But he is not prone to self-censorship or shy about tough talk. Questioned once about the United States use of cluster bombs, which human rights groups deplore because unexploded bomblets can later kill children, Rumsfeld told reporters, simply, that "they are being used on front-line al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them."
Rumsfeld's briefings to the press are feisty affairs, in which the secretary sometimes debates the premise of reporter's questions. When reporters get frustrated or try to press him, Rumsfeld often breaks into laughter.
This gives his appearances a free-wheeling affair. As he said to reporters earlier this week, between chuckles, "Oh, we make up the rules as we go along. What the heck."
France and Germany may not be laughing, but that might not concern the defense secretary.
"Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem," he said Wednesday. "But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They're not with France and Germany on this, they're with the United States."