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A Brilliant but Slovenly Bachelor Who Drafted the New Deal Dies

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Benjamin V. CohenCredit: Cohen Peace Fellowship - Ball State University

On August 15, 1983, Benjamin V. Cohen, the lawyer who played a key role in the drafting of much of the New Deal’s most important legislation, and who went on to be involved in the establishment of the United Nations and of diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel, died, at the age of 88.

Benjamin Victor Cohen was born on September 13, 1894, in Muncie, Indiana. His parents, Moses Cohen and the former Sarah Ringolsky, were both Polish-born Jews; Ben was the youngest of their five children. Moses Cohen owned several successive businesses in Muncie together with his father-in-law, the most successful of which was a scrap metal yard.

Ben was noted for his brilliance while still in high school, and at the University of Chicago, he needed only four years to complete both his undergraduate and his law degrees. Another year was needed for him to pick up a research doctorate in law at Harvard. It was there that Cohen met Felix Frankfurter, a law professor (and later U.S. Supreme Court justice) who helped place him and many other excellent Jewish students in different official positions.

For Cohen, it was a clerkship with U.S. Circuit Court Judge Julian Mack. Mack, an early Zionist, later took Cohen with him to represent the American Jewish Congress at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where the terms of the League of Nations’ mandate for Palestine were defined, among other things.

Come the crash

From 1921 to 1933, Cohen was a Wall Street corporate lawyer, and he lost some $1.5 million in the “great crash” of 1929. In 1933, Frankfurter proposed him, together with Thomas Corcoran and James Landis, for the writing of the Securities Act (also called the Truth in Securities Act), which required disclosure of relevant information to potential buyers of instruments of investment.

Mainly in tandem with Corcoran, Cohen went on to write the legislation that established the Securities Exchange Commission (1934), the Public Utility Holding Company Act (1935), the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Federal Housing Administration, among many other innovations of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration intended to restore the U.S. to economic productivity, and to place obstacles in the way of corporate rapaciousness.

During his years in the Roosevelt administration, Cohen boarded together with Corcoran and five other bright young men in a house in Georgetown that came to be known as the Little Red House. Shy, awkward and somewhat sickly, Cohen never married. One biographer, Charles Mee, wrote that he was known for “his slouching posture, sloppy dress, absent-minded table manners — and for a skill at drafting legislation that was generally reckoned the best in the United States.”

Before the U.S. entered World War II, it was Cohen who drafted the Lend-Lease Act and other legislation that allowed America to provide military assistance to the Allies. Later, he served as draftsman for the president at the Potsdam Conference (1945), and at Dumbarton Oaks, where the organizing principles of the United Nations were laid down.

He went on, under President Harry S. Truman, to help in the establishment of relations between the U.S. and Israel, in 1948.

Benjamin Cohen died of pneumonia, in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1983.

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