|20th United States Secretary of Defense|
January 24, 1997 – January 20, 2001
Rudy de Leon
|Preceded by||William J. Perry|
|Succeeded by||Donald Rumsfeld|
|United States Senator|
January 3, 1979 – January 3, 1997
|Preceded by||William Hathaway|
|Succeeded by||Susan Collins|
|Chair of the Senate Aging Committee|
January 4, 1995 – January 3, 1997
|Preceded by||David Pryor|
|Succeeded by||Chuck Grassley|
|Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee|
January 5, 1981 – January 3, 1983
|Preceded by||John Melcher|
|Succeeded by||Mark Andrews|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives|
from Maine's 2nd district
January 3, 1973 – January 3, 1979
|Preceded by||William Hathaway|
|Succeeded by||Olympia Snowe|
|Mayor of Bangor, Maine|
|Member of the Bangor City Council|
William Sebastian Cohen
August 28, 1940
Bangor, Maine, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Diana Dunn (divorced 1987)|
|Education||Bowdoin College (BA)|
Boston University (LLB)
William Sebastian Cohen (born August 28, 1940) is an American lawyer, author, and politician from the U.S. state of Maine. A Republican, Cohen served as both a member of the United States House of Representatives (1973–1979) and Senate (1979–1997), and as Secretary of Defense (1997–2001) under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Described as "a Republican moderate from Maine" and "something of a maverick centrist" by David Halberstam, Cohen had very good working relations with President Clinton and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and an "almost ideal" collaboration with the Joint Chiefs of Staff; however he often clashed with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whom he saw as "a grandstander, too outspoken on policy matters, and too eager to use military force."
Early life and education
Cohen was born in Bangor, Maine. His mother, Clara (née Hartley), was of Protestant Irish ancestry, and his father, Reuben Cohen, was born in New York and was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant; the two owned the Bangor Rye Bread Co.
Pursuant to his father's wishes, Cohen was raised Jewish, attended a synagogue, and also attended Hebrew School in preparation for his bar mitzvah, but he decided not to follow through with his bar mitzvah when he was informed that he would have to convert formally to Judaism, and he began to practice Christianity.
After graduating from Bangor High School in 1958, Cohen attended Bowdoin College, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Latin in 1962. While a student at Bowdoin, Cohen was initiated as a brother of the Kappa chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity.
While in high school and college, Cohen was a basketball player and was named to the Maine all-state high school and college basketball team, and at Bowdoin was inducted into the New England All-Star Hall of Fame. Cohen attended law school at the Boston University School of Law, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws degree cum laude in 1965.
Legal, academic, and early political career
He became an assistant county attorney for Penobscot County (1968–1970). In 1968 he became an instructor at Husson College in Bangor, and later was an instructor in business administration at the University of Maine (1968–1972).
Cohen served as the vice president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association (1970–1972) and as a member of the Bangor School Board (1971–1972). He became a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School in 1972, and in 1975 was named as one of the U.S. Jaycee's "ten outstanding young men."
Cohen was elected to the Bangor City Council (1969–1972) and served as Bangor Mayor in 1971–1972.
House of Representatives and Senate
In the 1972 election, Cohen won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Maine's 2nd congressional district, succeeding Democrat William Hathaway, who was elected to the US Senate. Cohen defeated Democratic State Senator Elmer H. Violette of Van Buren.
During his first term in Congress, Cohen was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, where he participated in the 1974 impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon. He was one of the first Republicans on the committee to support impeaching Nixon. During this time, Time magazine named him one of "America's 200 Future Leaders". In July 1974, he said,
I have been faced with the terrible responsibility of assessing the conduct of a President that I voted for, believed to be the best man to lead this country. But a President who in the process by act or acquiescence allowed the rule of law and the Constitution to slip under the boots of indifference and arrogance and abuse.
After three terms in the House, Cohen was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978, defeating incumbent William Hathaway in his first bid for reelection. Cohen was reelected in 1984 and 1990, serving a total of 18 years in the Senate (1979–1997). In 1990, he defeated Democrat Neil Rolde. Cohen developed a reputation as a moderate Republican with liberal views on social issues and has been described as "a career-long maverick with a reputation for fashioning compromise out of discord."
In 1994 Cohen investigated the federal government's process for acquiring information technology, and his report, Computer Chaos: Billions Wasted Buying Federal Computer Systems, generated much discussion. He chose not to run for another Senate term in 1996; Susan Collins, who had worked for Cohen, was elected to succeed him.
While in the Senate, Cohen served on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Governmental Affairs Committee (1979–1997) and was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee 1983–1991 and again 1995–1997, serving as Vice Chairman from 1987 to 1991. He also participated in the drafting of several notable laws related to defense matters, including the Competition in Contracting Act (1984), the Montgomery G.I. Bill Act (1984), the Goldwater–Nichols Act (1986), the Intelligence Oversight Reform Act (1991), the Federal Acquisition Reform Act (1996), the Nunn–Cohen Act Amendment creating the United States Special Operations Command, and the Information Technology Management Reform Act, also known as the Clinger–Cohen Act (1996). Cohen voted in favor of the bill establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday and the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 (as well as to override President Reagan's veto). Cohen voted in favor of the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Secretary of Defense
On December 5, 1996, President Bill Clinton announced his selection of Cohen as Secretary of Defense, saying that he was the "right person" to build on the achievements of retiring secretary William Perry "to secure the bipartisan support America's armed forces must have and clearly deserve." As Secretary of Defense Cohen played a large role in directing the United States military actions in Iraq and Kosovo, including the dismissal of Wesley Clark from his post as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander. Both Operation Desert Fox in Iraq and Operation Allied Force in Kosovo were launched just months after al-Qaeda carried out the United States embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998.
During his confirmation hearings, Cohen said he thought he might differ with Clinton on specific national security issues on occasion. He implicitly criticized the Clinton administration for lacking a clear strategy for leaving Bosnia and stated that he thought U.S. troops should definitely be out by mid-1998. He also asserted that he would resist further budget cuts, retain the two regional conflicts strategy, and support spending increases for advanced weapons, even if it necessitated further cuts in military personnel. Cohen questioned whether savings from base closings and acquisition reform could provide enough money for procurement of new weapons and equipment that the Joint Chiefs of Staff thought necessary in the next few years. He supported the expansion of NATO and looked on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the most serious problem the United States faced.
After confirmation by a unanimous Senate vote, Cohen was sworn in as the 20th Secretary of Defense on January 24, 1997. He then settled into a schedule much fuller than he had followed in the Senate. Routinely he arrived at the Pentagon before 7 a.m., received an intelligence briefing, and then met with the Deputy Secretary of Defense (John Hamre 1997–2000, Rudy de Leon 2000–2001) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Hugh Shelton). The rest of the day he devoted to policy and budget briefings, visits with foreign and other dignitaries, and to what he termed "ABC" meetings at the White House with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger as well as President Bill Clinton. He also traveled abroad several times during his first months in office.
One of Cohen's first major duties was to present to Congress the fiscal year 1998 defense budget, which had been prepared under Secretary Perry. Cohen requested a $250.7 billion budget, which represented 3 percent of the nation's estimated gross domestic product for FY 1998. Cohen stressed three top budget priorities: people (recruiting and retaining skilled people through regular military pay raises, new construction or modernization of barracks, and programs for child care, family support, morale, welfare, and recreation), readiness (support for force readiness, training, exercises, maintenance, supplies, and other essential needs), and modernization (development and upgrading of weapon and supporting systems to guarantee the combat superiority of U.S. forces). This meant increasing the funds available for procurement of new systems, with the target set at $60 billion by FY2001.
When he presented the FY1998 budget, Cohen noted that he would involve himself with the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which would focus on the challenges to U.S. security and the nation's military needs over the next decade or more. When the QDR became public in May 1997, it did not fundamentally alter the military's budget, structure, and doctrine. Many defense experts thought it gave insufficient attention to new forms of warfare, such as terrorist attacks, electronic sabotage, and the use of chemical and biological agents. Cohen stated that the Pentagon would retain the "two regional wars" scenario adopted after the end of the Cold War. He decided to scale back purchases of jet fighters, including the Air Force's F-22 Raptor and the Navy's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well as Navy surface ships. The review included cutting another 61,700 active duty service members—15,000 in the Army, 26,900 in the Air Force, 18,000 in the Navy, and 1,800 in the Marine Corps, as well as 54,000 reserve forces, mainly in the Army National Guard, and some 80,000 civilians department-wide. Cohen also recommended two more rounds of base closings in 1999 and 2001. The Pentagon hoped to save $15 billion annually over the next few years to make possible the purchase of new equipment and weapon systems without a substantial budget increase above the current level of $250 billion.
International relations and situations
Cohen faced the question of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he supported and its relationship to Russia. At a summit meeting between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki, Finland, in March 1997, Yeltsin acknowledged the inevitability of broader NATO membership. Two months later he agreed, after negotiations with NATO officials, to sign an accord providing for a new permanent council. The council would include Russia, the NATO secretary general, and a representative of the other NATO nations, to function as a forum in which Russia could air a wide range of security issues which it was concerned about. Formal signing of this agreement would pave the way for a July 1997 invitation from NATO to several nations, probably including Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the organization.
The proposed U.S. missile defense system received attention at the Helsinki summit, where Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to an interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty allowing the United States to proceed with a limited missile defense system currently under development. Specifically, Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to distinguish between a national missile defense system, aimed against strategic weapons, not allowed by the ABMT, and a theater missile defense system to guard against shorter range missile attacks. Some critics thought that any agreement of this kind would place undesirable limits on the development of both theater and strategic missile defenses. The Helsinki meeting also saw progress in arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia, a matter high on Cohen's agenda. Yeltsin and Clinton agreed on the need for early Russian ratification of the Second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) and negotiation of START III to make further significant cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenals of both nations.
At least until mid-1998, the continuation of the existing peacekeeping mission involving U.S. forces in Bosnia and the possibility that other such missions would arise worried Cohen, who earlier had expressed reservations about such operations. Humanitarian efforts that did not involve peacekeeping, such as in Rwanda in the recent past, also seemed likely. Other persistent national security problems, including tension with Iraq in the Persian Gulf area, Libya in North Africa, and North Korea in East Asia, could flare up again, as could the Arab–Israeli conflict.
In preparing future budgets, the challenge would be to find the right mix between money for operation and maintenance accounts on the one hand and modernization procurement funds on the other, while facing the prospect of a flat DoD budget of about $250 billion annually for the next decade or so. A relatively new problem that could affect the DoD budget was vertical integration in the defense industry. It occurred on a large scale in the 1990s as mergers of major defense contractors created a few huge dominant companies, particularly in the aerospace industry. They were called vertical because they incorporated most of the elements of the production process, including parts and subcomponents. Cohen and other Pentagon leaders began to worry that vertical integration could reduce competition and in the long run increase the costs of what the Department of Defense had to buy.
In December 1999, Cohen ordered an immediate review of the Clinton administration's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding the status and treatment of gays and lesbians in the U.S. military. The order was given shortly after the president said publicly that the policy was not working. During his tenure as Defense Secretary, Cohen also had to address various other social issues, including: the role of women in combat as well as in other military jobs, racism, and sexual harassment.
After leaving the Pentagon in 2001, Cohen founded The Cohen Group, a business consulting firm, with three Pentagon officials, Bob Tyrer, Jim Bodner, and H.K. Park. Cohen was presented with the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service by the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution on March 7, 2002, in New York City.
On January 5, 2006, he participated in a meeting at the White House of former Secretaries of Defense and State to discuss United States foreign policy with Bush administration officials.
Cohen has written several books, including mysteries, poetry, and (with George Mitchell) an analysis of the Iran–Contra affair. He is a Chairman Emeritus of the US–Taiwan Business Council. The Washington Post ran an article entitled "From Public Life to Private Business" about Cohen's abrupt transition to the business of Washington lobbying within "weeks of leaving office." (May 28, 2006). It discussed the affairs of the Cohen Group in greater detail and, while alleging no specific impropriety, took a generally negative view of the former Senator and Secretary of Defense.
On August 21, 2006, Cohen's novel, Dragon Fire, was released. The plot revolves around a secretary of defense who contends with a potential nuclear threat from a foreign country. In December 2006, he released a memoir with his wife, author Janet Langhart, entitled Love in Black and White, a memoir about race, religion, and the love couple shares over similar life circumstances and backgrounds. He then appeared on The Daily Show (August 22, 2006) and on Fox & Friends First (August 25, 2006), where he said to host Brian Kilmeade, "I think there should be a commitment to universal service. I think that only a few people are really committed to this war against terrorism. ... We ought to have a real call to national service to commit ourselves to some form of public service ...to put us on a war footing mentality."
Cohen serves as an advisory board member for the Partnership for a Secure America and is also a member of the ReFormers Caucus of Issue One. In addition, he serves as a board member of the U.S.-China Business Council, having served as vice-chairman between 2011 and 2013, and the U.S.-India Business Council.
During the 2016 presidential election, Cohen joined many Republicans in breaking with party ranks to oppose the candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump. He endorsed Democratic nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the 2020 election, Cohen again announced his support for the Democratic presidential candidate, endorsing Joe Biden. However, he also endorsed incumbent Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins for re-election.
Cohen, along with all of the living former secretaries of defense, ten in total, published a Washington Post op-ed piece in January 2021 telling President Trump not to involve the military in determining the outcome of the 2020 elections.
In July 2022, Cohen helped found a group of U.S. business and policy leaders who share the goal of constructively engaging with China in order to improve U.S.-China relations.
Cohen filed for divorce from his first wife, Diana Dunn, on February 15, 1987, with whom he has two sons, Kevin and Christopher. On February 14, 1996, Cohen and Janet Langhart were married. Langhart is a former model, Boston television personality, and BET correspondent. She was known as the "First Lady of the Pentagon" during Cohen's tenure as secretary.
Attack at Holocaust Museum
On the afternoon of June 10, 2009, Cohen was at the U.S. Holocaust Museum waiting for his wife Janet Langhart who was to perform in the world premiere of her one-act play, Anne and Emmett. The play imagines a conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. While Cohen waited an elderly man with a slide-action rifle attacked the facility, fatally shooting a security guard--Museum Special Police Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns--before the attacker himself was wounded by the other guards. Cohen and Langhart were not injured, and appeared on CNN that afternoon to tell what they had seen and respond to the shooter's racist beliefs. The man was James W. von Brunn, 88, of Annapolis, a longtime "hard-core" white supremacist whose Internet writings contain extensive criticism against Jews and African Americans. He was charged in federal court with first-degree murder and was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven counts, including hate-crime charges. Langhart's play had been promoted in The Washington Post the week before, and was being presented in honor of the eightieth anniversary of Anne Frank's birth.
- July 7, 2009, "On Common Ground", Forbes magazine
- June 8, 2009, "Smart Power Is Soft Power", Politico
- June 3, 2009, "Nuclear Cooperation with U.A.E. in Our Interest", The Hill
- May 28, 2009, "Obama's chance to cement ties with India", Financial Times
- May 28, 2009, "No Time to Cut Missile Defense", The Washington Times
- April 23, 2009, "The World Depends on U.S.-China Cooperation", The Wall Street Journal
- September 30, 2008, "The India Nuclear Deal: The Merits", Forbes magazine
- December 30, 2007, "Changing Our Direction", www.nationalinterest.org
- August 12, 2007, "What Is This Man Thinking?", The Washington Post
- February 5, 2007, "Perfect Partners", Asian Wall Street Journal
- July 17, 2007, "Commentary: North Korea's Declaration of Independence", CNN
- "William S. Cohen - William J. Clinton Administration". Office of the Secretary of Defense - Historical Office.
- Charles A. Stevenson, SECDEF: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense, pp. 105–114, Potomac Books, 2006
- The Clarion-Ledger Jackson, Mississippi, July 8, 1979, Sun, p. 22.
- "Mother of former Maine senator, Clara Cohen, dies". Boston.com. May 12, 2008. Archived from the original on July 25, 2012. Retrieved June 11, 2009.
- "'Love in Black and White' explores race - Relationships". Today.com. February 20, 2007. Retrieved June 11, 2009.
- Guttman, Nathan (October 3, 2007). "Former Secretary of Defense Puts Up Mezuza After D.C. Rabbi Reaches Out". Forward. Retrieved November 16, 2022.
- Stone, Kurt F. (2011). The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members. p. 3. ISBN 9780810857315.
- "William Sebastian Cohen". Encyclopedia of World Biography -- The Gale Group Inc. Retrieved August 21, 2019.
- "Distinguished Alumni". Psi Upsilon Fraternity. Archived from the original on September 5, 2012. Retrieved October 31, 2012.
- "The Fateful Vote to Impeach". Time. Vol. 104, no. 6. New York, New York. August 5, 1974. Retrieved November 15, 2019.
- Priest, Dana; Dewar, Helen Dewar (December 6, 1996). "Republican Cohen Equally at Home With Policy and Poesy". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- Priest, Dana (January 22, 1997). "An 'Outsider' Set to Taker Over Pentagon". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- Sherrill, Martha (May 5, 2011). "Maine senators may not like each other much, but they share love of state, job". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
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- Zimmerman, Dwight Jon (August 25, 2010). "From World War II to Nunn-Cohen". defensemedianetwork.com. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "TO PASS H.R. 3706. (MOTION PASSED) SEE NOTE(S) 19".
- "TO PASS S 557, CIVIL RIGHTS RESTORATION ACT, A BILL TO RESTORE THE BROAD COVERAGE AND CLARIFY FOUR CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS BY PROVIDING THAT IF ONE PART OF AN INSTITUTION IS FEDERALLY FUNDED, THEN THE ENTIRE INSTITUTION MUST NOT DISCRIMINATE".
- "TO ADOPT, OVER THE PRESIDENT'S VETO OF S 557, CIVIL RIGHTS RESTORATION ACT, A BILL TO RESTORE BROAD COVERAGE OF FOUR CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS BY DECLARING THAT IF ONE PART OF AN INSTITUTION RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDS, THEN THE ENTIRE INSTITUTION MUST NOT DISCRIMINATE. TWO-THIRDS OF THE SENATE, HAVING VOTED IN THE AFFIRMATIVE, OVERRODE THE PRESIDENTIAL VETO".
- "Pentagon to review 'don't ask, don't tell' policy". CNN. December 13, 1999. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved November 15, 2019.
- "William Cohen is quite the speedy author these days". Names and Faces. The Washington Post. August 18, 2006. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- Stewart, Jon (host) (August 22, 2006). "William Cohen". The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Season 11. Episode 108. Comedy Central.
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- "Lexington: Preventing genocide". The Economist. December 11, 2008. Retrieved June 8, 2009.
- "Harut Sassounian: Secretaries Albright and Cohen Should be Removed from Genocide Task Force". Huffington Post. March 28, 2008. Retrieved June 8, 2009.
- "Cohen and Albright Grilled on Hypocrisy of Opposing Armenian Genocide Recognition While Leading New Genocide Prevention Effort". Archived from the original on June 15, 2010. Retrieved March 9, 2010.
- "Issue One – ReFormers Caucus". www.issueone.org. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "William Cohen". U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Archived from the original on March 30, 2018. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- Ahmann, Tim; Zargham, Mohammad; Heavey, Susan (September 7, 2016). Walsh, Eric (ed.). "Republican ex-defense secretary Cohen backs Hillary Clinton". Reuters.
- Russell, Eric (August 26, 2020). "Former Republican senator from Maine, Bill Cohen, endorses Biden". Portland Press Herald. Retrieved August 26, 2020.
- Mannino, Gabrielle (September 18, 2020). "Collins picks up endorsements from Mass. Gov., former Maine Sen. Cohen". News Center Maine. Retrieved October 6, 2020.
- Lamothe, Dan (January 3, 2021). "All 10 living former defense secretaries: Involving the military in election disputes would cross into dangerous territory". Washington Post. Archived from the original on February 13, 2023. Retrieved January 3, 2021.
- Greenberg, Maurice Raymond (July 7, 2022). "We Want to Rebuild U.S. Relations With China - WSJ". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on July 7, 2022. Retrieved July 7, 2022.
- "People." Stamford (CT) Daily Advocate, February 8, 1996, p. 2.
- "JANET LANGHART COHEN First Lady Of the Pentagon - Ebony". findarticles.com. May 27, 2012. Archived from the original on May 27, 2012. Retrieved March 29, 2018.
- "Arizona, the early years". Azcentral.com. Retrieved June 8, 2009.
- Clymer, Adam (December 6, 1996). "A Bipartisan Voice: William Sebastian Cohen". The New York Times. Retrieved October 9, 2014.
- Kuttler, Hillel (January 26, 1997). "Cohen new Pentagon chief". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved June 11, 2009.
- Brevis, Vita. "State of the Nation". Daily Kos. Retrieved June 11, 2009.
- Ruane, Michael E.; Duggan, Paul; Williams, Clarence (June 11, 2009). "At a Monument of Sorrow, A Burst of Deadly Violence". The Washington Post.
- Official biography via the Department of Defense
- United States Congress. "William Cohen (id: C000598)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Thursday October 2009 Audio interview about government terrorism, individual liberty and foreign war policies. University of Illinois in-depth radio programs on Focus 580
- Computer Chaos: Billions Wasted Buying Federal Computer Systems. Investigative report of Senator William S. Cohen.- dead link
- Computer Chaos: Billions Wasted Buying Federal Computer Systems. Investigative report of Senator William S. Cohen.[permanent dead link]
- William Cohen to Co-Chair Genocide Prevention Task Force
- Biography from the William S. Cohen Archive, University of Maine Fogler Library
- Voting record maintained by the Washington Post
- on YouTube
- Genocide Deniers Set Course for Genocide Prevention