Benjamin V. Cohen

Benjamin V. Cohen: Architect of the New Deal

William Lasser
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 406
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Benjamin V. Cohen
    Book Description:

    A key figure in the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Benjamin V. Cohen (1894-1983) was a major architect of public policy from the first days of FDR's presidency through the early days of the Cold War. Although he kept a low public profile, Cohen's influence extended across a wide range of domestic and foreign policy initiatives. In this biography, William Lasser offers the first account of Ben Cohen's life and career, and an assessment of his contribution to the origin and development of modern American liberalism.Cohen's life provides an extraordinary lens through which to view the development of the evolving political philosophy of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies. A brilliant lawyer noted for his good judgment and experience, Cohen was a leading member of FDR's "Brain Trust," developing ideas, drafting legislation, lobbying within the administration and in Congress, and defending the New Deal in court. The book traces his contributions to domestic financial policy, his activities during the war years in London and Washington, his service as counselor to the State Department and member of the American delegation to the United Nations after the war, and his role in the American Zionist movement. From Cohen's life and work, Lasser draws important insights into the development of the New Deal and the evolution of postwar liberalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12888-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Richard C. Leone

    In 1919, when Edward Filene founded the institution that would eventually become the Twentieth Century Fund and still later The Century Foundation, he was manifesting one of the principal beliefs of what we have come to call the Progressive Era: that systematic analysis and close examination of the facts could improve governance and extend progress. It is only fitting, therefore, that the trustees of The Century Foundation should have made an exception to their usual practice by agreeing to sponsor this work of biography.

    Benjamin V. Cohen had a long relationship with the Twentieth Century Fund, serving as a trustee...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiii)
    Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  6. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    It was a scene symbolic of the New Deal itself. On one side sat the representatives of the nation’s largest and most powerful public utility companies, the embodiment (or so the New Dealers would have it) of corporate greed and excess. Led by Wendell Willkie, head of the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation and soon-to-be candidate for president of the United States, they had employed the leading lights of the private bar to argue their case. On the other side were clustered the finest legal minds the federal government could muster, led by Assistant Attorney General Robert Jackson and supported by...

  7. 2 Origins
    (pp. 7-24)

    Exactly what brought Ben Cohen’s father to Muncie, Indiana, in 1881 remains a mystery. Certainly it was not the Jewish community, which consisted of a handful of German immigrants in the clothing business; there was not even an organized Jewish congregation. Nor, on the surface, was there an obvious economic motive. Muncie in the early 1880s was a “placid county-seat of some 6,000 souls,” set in the midst of Midwestern farm country, according to an early account. “On the streets . . . on fair days lawyers, doctors, the officials of the county courts, and the merchants walked about in...

  8. 3 Zionist Attorney
    (pp. 25-46)

    Given Cohen’s connections to Julian Mack and Felix Frankfurter, some involvement with Zionism was probably inevitable, for by 1917 both Mack and Frankfurter were deeply committed to the Zionist cause. Cohen’s association with Mack and Frankfurter also drew him inexorably into the orbit of Louis Dembitz Brandeis, who, in addition to serving as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was also the leading American Zionist of his day.

    In his seventh decade of life at the end of World War I, Louis Brandeis could count enough achievements for two or three careers. He had been a phenomenally...

  9. 4 Lawyer and Investor
    (pp. 47-64)

    Cohen returned from London in the spring of 1921 with his personal and professional future once more in doubt. He had no job, no license to practice law, not even a place to call home. His first step was to decide whether to return to Chicago, move to New York City, or settle somewhere else—perhaps Boston or Washington. Ultimately this decision was not difficult; although his family was in Chicago, his friends and professional associates (with the exception of Felix Frankfurter) were all in Manhattan. New York would be home—“the only home I have”—even years later, when...

  10. 5 Newcomer to Washington The Securities Act of 1933
    (pp. 65-85)

    Ben Cohen’s role in the New Deal began on December 19, 1932, less than six weeks after the November elections and nearly three months before Franklin Roosevelt became the thirty-second president of the United States. Three days earlier Felix Frankfurter had received a letter from Joseph Eastman, a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and a onetime protégé of Louis Brandeis. “I am in need of help on a very important question,” wrote Eastman. “Senator Hastings has introduced a bill . . . which amends the bankruptcy act in order to provide a better system for the voluntary reorganization...

  11. 6 Into the Maelstrom The Securities Exchange Act of 1934
    (pp. 86-107)

    The Securities Act of 1933 was a quintessential product of the First One Hundred Days. Far from attempting a fundamental reform of stock exchange practices, it took only a tentative first step toward federal regulation. Introduced and passed along with so much other New Deal legislation, the bill faced only scattered and disorganized opposition, both inside and outside Congress. Above all, it was cautious in the extreme, going out of its way to avoid a clash with business on fundamental issues. “I get the impression that the better educated offices in New York are becoming reconciled to the Act,” Cohen...

  12. 7 The Public Utility Holding Company Act
    (pp. 108-129)

    The year 1935 began with great promise for the New Deal. The 1934 midterm elections had been an unqualified triumph for Roosevelt and the Democrats, with the president’s party actually gaining ground in both houses for the first time in history. The Democrats now controlled nearly three-quarters of each house, and it was generally assumed “that Congress will pass nearly every bill the President wants and kill nearly every bill he does not want.” Although here and there Congress would show its independence, on the whole the president’s program was expected to pass without difficulty.¹

    Even big business now seemed...

  13. 8 At the Center of Power
    (pp. 130-149)

    By the middle of 1935, Cohen and Corcoran had moved from the periphery of the Roosevelt administration to its very center. Corcoran especially was becoming a fixture at White House social functions, delighting the president with melodious Irish ballads, sung to the accompaniment of the piano or accordion. Cohen typically stayed away from these affairs, both because he was less comfortable than Corcoran in such settings and because Roosevelt did not welcome his serious and melancholic personality. But Cohen, as much as Corcoran, was quickly threading his way toward the White House inner circle. Little by little, and without apparent...

  14. 9 The Court-Packing Plan
    (pp. 150-181)

    The Supreme Court’s 1938 decision upholding the Public Utility Holding Company Act was a major victory for Ben Cohen and for the Roosevelt administration. But the resolution of theElectric Bond & Sharecase came as something of an anticlimax: the real battle with the Supreme Court had been waged and won a year before, during Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called effort to pack the Court.

    The Court fight came on the heels of Roosevelt’s unprecedented landslide victory over Alf Landon in the 1936 elections. Roosevelt won the popular vote by 60.8 to 36.5 percent, and carried the electoral college by a...

  15. 10 Domestic Politics, 1937–1938
    (pp. 182-201)

    The publicity surrounding Cohen and Corcoran’s involvement in the Court-packing controversy amplified their reputations as Washington power players and cemented their close association with the New Deal’s liberal wing. When Roosevelt moved to the left in 1937, and especially when he did so again in 1938, commentators assumed that Cohen and Corcoran were responsible, and their reputations grew to even more extraordinary heights.

    But Cohen and Corcoran were not nearly as influential—nor indeed as liberal—as both contemporaries and historians have suggested. The eighteen months after the defeat of the Court-packing plan were not so much the high-water mark...

  16. 11 Waiting for the War
    (pp. 202-215)

    Cohen had begun to worry about foreign policy as early as the winter of 1937–38. According to his friend Joe Rauh, Cohen complained early on that “the real problem now is that most of the people in the New Deal don’t have any experience in foreign affairs.”¹ His own experience in such matters was not all that extensive either, but his outlook tended to be cosmopolitan, and he was as well placed as anyone to begin to turn his attention to the threat of war. Within a few years, and for the rest of his life, Cohen would direct...

  17. 12 Destroyers for Bases
    (pp. 216-231)

    In the summer of 1940, the presidential campaign and even his own future took a back seat to Ben Cohen’s growing concerns about the crisis in Europe. The Roosevelt administration’s sympathies were clearly with Britain, but with public opinion opposed to American involvement in the war and a presidential campaign ahead, the president was unwilling to risk a bold move on the foreign policy front. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939, Roosevelt did convene a special session of Congress and asked for repeal of the Neutrality Act of 1935, which prohibited the shipment of “arms, ammunition,...

  18. 13 London
    (pp. 232-254)

    It was clear by the fall of 1940 that Great Britain had survived the initial Nazi assault and was in for a long-term struggle, and that the United States was committed to at least a supporting role. Roosevelt’s reelection in November 1940 ratified the president’s limited moves to aid the British, and gave Roosevelt considerably more room to maneuver in his dealings with both Congress and the American people. But the overall situation in Europe remained grim, and Ben Cohen longed to be closer to the action. His opportunity came with the resignation of Joseph P. Kennedy as the American...

  19. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  20. 14 World War II
    (pp. 255-278)

    Cohen’s hiatus from government lasted until the fall of 1942, when he accepted the position of general counsel to the newly created Office of Economic Stabilization (OES). The OES had been established under the Emergency Price Control Act of 1942 “to formulate and develop a comprehensive national economic policy relating to the control of civilian purchasing power, prices, rents, wages, salaries, profits, rationing, subsidies, and all related matters.” Roosevelt appointed as director the former South Carolina senator James F. Byrnes, who resigned his lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court to take up the post. To symbolize the importance of Byrnes’s...

  21. 15 Diplomat
    (pp. 279-301)

    Ben Cohen’s resignation from government service in January 1945 marked another watershed in his life and career. Cohen had resigned—or threatened to resign—several times before, but this was different. This time, he resigned not merely out of pique, nor from an overreaction to what was, from his point of view, the president’s dismissive and insulting behavior. Cohen’s resignation was, instead, a long-overdue expression of personal ambition and of a desire for recognition and reward. Three months past his fiftieth birthday, he was a full generation older than the young men who now served as presidential assistants; his “passion...

  22. 16 Elder Statesman
    (pp. 302-317)

    Cohen resigned from government service for the final time on January 20, 1953, the day Harry Truman left the White House and Dwight D. Eisenhower became the thirty-fourth president of the United States. Cohen had been on the government payroll, with occasional lapses, for nearly twenty years, stretching back to his early work on securities regulation under the Public Works Agency. Occasionally over the next two decades his name would surface as a possibility for another government appointment—to the United Nations under Eisenhower, even to the Supreme Court under Lyndon Baines Johnson. But none of these prospects turned into...

  23. 17 Benjamin V. Cohen Architect of the New Deal
    (pp. 318-338)

    To contemporaries and historians alike, Benjamin Victor Cohen was a leading intellectual force behind the political philosophy of New Deal liberalism. Cohen’s “half-century of influence,” as the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., put it, “was not the influence of a politician possessing a mass constituency or the influence of a publicist possessing a mass audience. It was the influence of a man possessing a brain; the influence of reason quietly and lucidly brought to bear on public policy.” Cohen’s influence on the direction of government policy has surely been overstated, but his role as a key figure in the origins...

  24. Abbreviations in Notes
    (pp. 339-340)
  25. Notes
    (pp. 341-368)
  26. Index
    (pp. 369-385)