Benjamin V. Cohen (1894–1983), a member of the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, had a public service career that spanned from the early New Deal through and beyond the Vietnam War era.
Cohen earned a Bachelor of Philosophy (1914) and Juris Doctor (1915) from the University of Chicago, and a Doctor of Juridical Science (1916) from Harvard Law School.
Early career, Brain Trust, New Deal
Cohen was a law clerk for Judge Learned Hand. He served as counsel for the American Zionist Movement from 1919 – 1921. He acted as Zionist counsel to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Cohen practiced law in New York 1921 – 1933.
Cohen’s first appearance on the national scene was as a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Brain Trust. Cohen became a part of the Roosevelt administration in 1933 when Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard University Law School professor, brought Cohen, Thomas Corcoran, and James M. Landis together to write what became the Truth In Securities Act. Later that year Cohen was assigned to work on railroad legislation.
Much of Cohen’s work during the New Deal was in conjunction with Corcoran. Together they were known as the “Gold Dust Twins” and appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s September 12, 1938, edition.
World War II and post-War
In 1941, during the period leading up to the entry of the United States into World War II he helped write the Lend-Lease plan. Cohen also assisted in the drafting of the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks agreements leading to the establishment of the United Nations. In 1945 Cohen served as the United States’ chief draftsman at the Potsdam Conference.
In 1942 the New York times published a letter by Cohen and co-author Erwin Griswold decrying the United States Supreme Court Betts v. Brady ruling that poor criminal defendants had no right to an attorney. Two decades later the issue again came before the Supreme Court in the Gideon v. Wainwright case. The attorneys for Gideon, the person accused of a crime, concluded their brief to the Supreme Court with a lengthy quote from the Cohen/Griswold letter. This time the Supreme Court ruled that the government must appoint attorneys for criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
In 1948 Cohen advised both the United States and the new state of Israel with respect to the first official exchange between those two countries. Cohen provided crucial advice and counsel to senators working for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Jordan A. Schwarz writes “Although no government lawyer was as respected as Cohen, he never had a prominent position in government because of his palpable Jewishness.”
Cohen was the uncle of Selma Jeanne Cohen, a prominent dance historian.
- “Cohen was known for his slouching posture, sloppy dress, absentminded table manners – and for a skill at drafting legislation that was generally reckoned the best in the United States.”
- He “looked and talked, as a friend wrote, ‘like a Dickens portrait of an absent-minded professor.'”