The 15 years from 1932 through 1947 transformed the American government and its place in the world. Through much danger and tribulation, those years turned out well for the country--and, you can add, for much of the world as well. That did not happen automatically through the operation of blind impersonal forces and trends, as elementary history textbooks sometimes suggest, but through the character and intellect of the people who sought to guide that extraordinary change. One of the wisest and most influential among them was Benjamin V. Cohen, who died here Monday at the age of 88.
Some of this country was not far from violent and radical upheaval in the early 1930s. The historic contribution of the New Deal lawyers was to demonstrate that the public already possessed the authority, within the long established traditions of American law and regulation, to recapture control of the public's interests. No one today but the specialists knows anything about the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. That is a sign of its success--it is taken for granted. But in the 1920s speculators had introduced great instability into the American financial economy by developing the practice of pyramiding holding companies and even in 1933, amid the wreckage of their pyramids, they vehemently fought any attempt to control them. The act was important because it showed Americans that their government had both the will and the power to end practices that had been among the most flagrant and visible contributors to the great crash.
With the outbreak of war in Europe and the fall of France, it was clear that Britain was in desperate need of help and that the United States had the strongest possible interest in providing it. Mr. Cohen was at the center of the small group of men who drafted the Lend-Lease Act. Once again political and legal skill found a way, through the law, to meet the unprecedented requirements of a bad moment. In 1947 he was counselor of the State Department in the period when the Marshall Plan was being organized--probably the most valuable idea in American foreign policy in the past 40 years.
At that point he left the government. But he continued to live here, in an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue, and devoted himself to consulting, advising, talking and listening. He lived long enough to see the great legislation of 1933 accepted as essential by the children and grandchildren of the men who at the time had damned its authors as radicals and subversives. He also lived long enough to see the utility industry, and the securities industry, in the hands of people who consider the Holding Company Act and the Securities and Exchange Act to be basic protections of the integrity of their businesses.
It is hard to think of any American of his generation who was more gifted than Mr. Cohen. It is harder to think of any who used his gifts better, in the public service, than he did.