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Ben Cohen: one who took a different path.


Not all the architects of the New Deal soldout. A number committed their lives to fighting for progressive ideals well after FDR had died. Perhaps the most selfless was Benjamin Cohen. As much as Thomas G. Corcoran came to be viewed as a venal lobbyist, Cohen was looked upon as a committed public servant. "Ben demonstrated through the 40 years after the New Deal that he believed in New Deal ideals,' says Joseph Rauh, a civil rights attorney who worked for both Cohen and Corcoran in the thirties. "Tommy showed he didn't give a damn.'

For a time Cohen and Corcoran workedtogether extraordinarily well. They were the Hot Dog Boys, Felix Frankfurter's Harvard Law School proteges who, from 1933 to 1940, teamed up to create one of the great lawmaking duos of this century. Together they transformed American public life by writing and pushing through such legislation as the Securities and Exchange Act, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Key programs of the New Deal such as the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act were swiftly dismantled by the Supreme Court. The legislation engineered by Cohen and Corcoran, however, withstood judicial review and remains today remarkably intact.

Officially Cohen was in the Public Works Administration,Corcoran at the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. In fact, they worked on everything. The house they shared in Georgetown was an around-the-clock workshop filled with Ivy League law school graduates Cohen and Corcoran had brought to Washington to help save the country.

From the start it was clear Cohen was the soulof the team, the one truly committed to serving the public good. Cohen wrote the legislation. Corcoran rounded up the votes, relishing more, one contemporary recalls, the arm-twisting and exercise of power that got the bills passed than the impact they had on bettering people's lives. In August 1937, The American Magazine described them this way: "Of the two men, Cohen is more the social philosopher, Corcoran more the lawyer working on an assignment with Uncle Sam as his client.' When Corcoran left the government in 1940 to peddle his influence, Cohen stayed on, continuing to peddle his ideals.

During World War II Cohen served aseconomic counselor in the American embassy in London and later helped manage America's war-time economy. Cohen was involved in a number of important wartime transactions between America and its allies. As counsel for the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, a position he served in without pay, Cohen drafter the legal opinion that expedited the supply of U.S. destroyers to a badly depleted British Navy.

In 1944 Cohen turned his attention to the creationof the United Nations. He is credited with having written the U.S. delegation's proposal presented at Dumbarton Oaks, the first big-power meeting arranged specifically to discuss the establishment of a new world organization. Cohen later served as U.S. delegate to the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. representative to the International Court, and chief U.S. member of the U.N. Disarmament Commission. At a time when Corcoran was successfully scheming to cash in by transforming U.N. relief efforts into the first CIA-backed airline, Cohen was laboring to make the U.N. a forum for world peace.

In a series of lectures at the Harvard LawSchool in 1961, Cohen argued that the U.N. should be used as an instrument for ending the Cold War since, by bringing nations together, it is the "best hope of peace on earth.' While other New Dealers like former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who served as FDR's undersecretary of the Interior, and Thurman Arnold, FDR's assistant attorney general for antitrust, teamed up in powerful law firms like Arnold, Porter, and Fortas, Cohen wrote books like The United Nations, Constitutional Developments, Growth, and Possibilities.

Rauh says Corcoran asked Cohen to team upwith him again in 1950 when Cohen was preparing to leave the government. Cohen told Rauh he had spurned his former partner, who by then was a controversial lobbyist, because, "I can't do that kind of practice.' Instead, Cohen retired to the position of active elder statesman. "Ben was available night and day to advise on the same liberal ideals he had advised on in the New Deal,' says David Ginsburg, a lawyer who worked with Cohen in the thirties. As early as the mid-fifties, Cohen warned against any U.S. involvement in Vietnam. "He saw it as a civil war that would be a disaster for America to involve itself in,' says Ginsburg. "He was talking about Vietnam before most of us knew where it was.'

Although he made millions speculating in thestock market in the twenties, friends say he dressed shabbily and lived in a dingy apartment. In his latter years, when mentioned in the press, he was often referred to as "ascetic Ben Cohen.' Recalls a friend: "Ben was a sort of sainted figure. He really cared about public issues.'
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Author:Eisendrath, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Feb 1, 1987
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