In a statement, his family said he died surrounded by family in Taos, New Mexico.
"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 statement said in part.
Rumsfeld was born on July 9, 1932 in Chicago. He earned a degree in political science from Princeton University, and served in the U.S. Navy. In 1962 he was elected to the House of Representatives to serve in Illinois' 13th district. During his time in Congress he supported the Vietnam War and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, while opposing most of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" programs.
In 1968 he was appointed to the Office of Economic Opportunity by President Richard Nixon. He also served as Counselor to President Nixon, director of the Economic Stabilization Program, and an ambassador to NATO.
He served as Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford and then Secretary of Defense until the end of Ford's presidency. He then returned to private life until he was nominated as Secretary of Defense by President-Elect George W. Bush.
Regarded by former colleagues as equally smart and combative, patriotic and politically cunning, Rumsfeld had a storied career under four presidents and nearly a quarter century in corporate America.
In 2001 he began his second tour as Pentagon chief under President George W. Bush, but his plan to "transform" the armed forces was overshadowed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He oversaw the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, where he was blamed for setbacks including the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and for being slow to recognize a violent insurgency.
Under President Ford, Rumsfeld was the youngest Secretary of Defense in U.S. history; under President Bush, he was the oldest.
Full Statement from Former President George W. Bush
"On the morning of September 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld ran to the fire at the Pentagon to assist the wounded and ensure the safety of survivors. For the next five years, he was in steady service as a wartime secretary of defense - a duty he carried out with strength, skill, and honor.
"A period that brought unprecedented challenges to our country and to our military also brought out the best qualities in Secretary Rumsfeld. A man of intelligence, integrity, and almost inexhaustible energy, he 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.
"In a busy and purposeful life, Don Rumsfeld was a Naval officer, a member of Congress, a distinguished cabinet official in several administrations, a respected business leader - and, with his beloved wife, the co-founder of a charitable foundation. Later in life, he even became an app developer. All his life, he was good-humored and big-hearted, and he treasured his family above all else. Laura and I are very sorry to learn of Don's passing, and we send our deepest sympathy to Joyce and their children. We mourn an exemplary public servant and a very good man."
The Associated Press and CNN Wire both contributed to this report.