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William S. Cohen Papers

Identifier: SpC MS 0106

Scope and Contents

The William S. Cohen congressional papers consist of the records created by Cohen and his staff in the course of Cohen's duties as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1978 and as a U.S. Senator from 1979 to 1997. They include correspondence, memos, reports, press releases, appointment calendars, speeches, voting records, photographs, videos, and memorabilia. These files document Cohen's legislative and committee-related work, the attention and services he offered to his constituents, his public relations and press activities, and the administrative activities of his office in Washington D.C. and in the six state offices in Maine. The Department of Defense documents, primarily in electronic format, include trip reports, public statements, correspondence, photographs, and videotapes from 1997-2001. Cohen's private papers, the bulk of which consist of the manuscripts for the nine books he has written, are also included.

Private Papers, 1956-1996, 33 boxes

The bulk of Cohen's private papers consist of records related to writing, Cohen's major avocation. Drafts of his poetry and manuscripts from the nine books he has written are included here, and they attest to Cohen's avid interest in writing poetry, fiction, and accounts of his own experience in Congress. The papers also document several aspects of Cohen's life and career before he entered the U.S. Congress in 1973. They include his yearbooks from Bowdoin College, where he received his A.B. cum laude in Latin in 1962, correspondence with his colleagues in the American Trial Lawyer Association, and material related to the JFK Institute of Politics where Cohen was a fellow in 1972.

U.S. House of Representatives Papers, 1972-1980, 211 .5 cu. ft. boxes

This record group consists of the files that were created by Cohen and his staff in the course of Cohen's duties as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1979. They document the five major functional areas of a congressional office: a) personal/political/official, b) constituent services, c) legislative, d) press/media activities, and e) office administration. Each of these five functional areas contain records which form a series.

The personal/political/official records document Cohen's personal activities, and they consist of biographical information, scheduling records, Cohen's personal correspondence, and records from the four campaigns he conducted while he was in the House. These campaign records include brochures, voting records, position papers and newsclippings. Audiovisual campaign materials may be found with the audiovisual materials (record group 4).

The legislative records document the legislative process, and the bulk of the files contained in this series consist of Cohen's correspondence with his constituents about specific legislative issues. Also included are records related to Cohen's service on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee from 1973-1979. As a freshman member of that committee in 1974, Cohen participated in the Nixon impeachment inquiry, commonly known as the Watergate crisis. Draft articles of impeachment, Cohen's correspondence with other Judiciary Committee members, and other records which document the decision he made to vote in favor of Nixon's impeachment may be found in this series.

A number of Cohen's aides worked on legislative issues such as health, aging, the environment, and the fishing industry. Files received on these and other legislative subjects were few in number, so they have been filed with Cohen's Senate legislative papers, under the appropriate subject headings. This also includes files related to long-term Maine issues such as the controversy over the Dickey-Lincoln power plant and the Indian land claims settlement of 1980.

The constituent service records document the representative function of the Cohen office. This involves activities such as managing casework and coordinating service academy appointments. Due to the confidential nature of case work files, they were removed from the collection before it was transferred to the University of Maine. The records in this series consists of two boxes of service academy applications and screening committee records, which are arranged alphabetically according to the last name of each applicant.

Press/media records reflect the efforts of Cohen's staff to communicate with the public about Cohen, and they consist of newspaper clippings, press releases, speeches, and special mailings. Office administrative records include staff memos, general correspondence, and applications for internships in Cohen's office.

U.S. Senate Papers, 1973-1996, 1161 boxes

These records were created by Cohen and his staff in the course of Cohen's duties as a U.S. Senator from 1979 to 1996. Some of the legislative papers from Cohen's time in the House of Representatives are also included. The records in this category document the five major functional areas of a congressional office, which are the same as they are in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The personal/political/official records include Cohen's personal correspondence with Presidents Bush, Reagan, and Carter as well as other political and public figures. Records from his two Senate campaigns, the first in 1984 and the second in 1990, are also found in this series, and they consist of Cohen's voting records, position papers, and newsclippings.

The bulk of the legislative records were created by Cohen's legislative aides, who were responsible for drafting bills, and providing him with up-to-date information about pending legislation and advice on possible legislative strategies. Each aide was usually assigned to several subject areas, such as agriculture, defense, education, transportation, and the environment, and the records are organized according to these subject areas. They contain memos from aides to Cohen, copies of bills, transcripts of hearings, briefing books, and staff project files. The legislative records also reflect Cohen's service on various committees, such as the Committee on Aging, which he was a member of from 1977-1997, and the Senate committee formed to investigate the Iran-contra affair in 1987. Cohen's Iran-contra files include drafts of the questions he asked of witnesses who participated in the public hearings, advisory memos from legislative aides, and drafts of speeches and floor statements.

The constituent service records consist largely of correspondence which was handled by a Correspondence Management System (CMS), used to produce responses to individual letters from constituents. The care with which this correspondence was handled documents the priority status that constituent service was given in the Cohen office. The correspondence for each year that Cohen was in the Senate (with the exception of 1996) was microfilmed, and the microfilm copies and masters of this correspondence are included with the audio-visual materials.

The press/media records are made up of newsclippings, press releases, speeches, and documentation concerning the television show Washington Perspective which Cohen participated in with Sen. George Mitchell. Video and audiocassette tapes of Cohen on television talk shows and on the Senate floor can be found with the audiovisual materials.

The office administrative records include travel itineraries, an office policy manual, staff memos, and administrative reports.

Audiovisual Materials, 73 boxes and 63 reels

Records in this group encompass Cohen's career in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Included here are over 600 videocassette recordings of Cohen's speeches, television interviews, his own radio and television broadcasts, and his statements from the floor of the House and the Senate. Audiocassette tapes, microfilm, reel-to-reel tapes and other audiovisual materials, created to communicate information about issues and events with which Cohen was involved, are also found in this series. Much of this material was generated for the four campaigns Cohen waged during his term in the House, as well as his Senate campaigns of 1984 and 1990.

Photographs and Memorabilia, 120 linear ft.

Photographs of Cohen with family members, constituents, and VIPs, as well as several hundred negatives which were taken by the Senate Photo Studio are found in this series, as well as plaques, framed photographs, trophies, honorary degrees, and other objects that were given to Cohen as tokens of esteem from constituents, universities, corporations, and other institutions.

Department of Defense, 1996-2001, 5 GB (16 CD-ROM disks) and 6 boxes of videotapes

Secretary Cohen's papers from the Office of the Secretary of Defense consist of files kept in the office for reference purposes; official federal records created by Cohen and the staff at the Pentagon are retained by the DOD and by the National Archives. Cohen's DOD papers are copies of unclassified documents. The records in this group are divided into five series: official correspondence, trips, public statements, conferences/hearings/special events, photographs, and news.

The official correspondence series consists of a variety of letters to and from congressional leaders, other cabinet offices, and heads of state as well as reports to Congress and the President; staff memos regarding scheduling and suggested talking points for meetings; and related reference material such as President Clinton's speeches and detailed Congressional committee reports on defense matters. This is the only series of material generally not available the public in other forms.

Trip materials include itineraries, points of contact, speeches, statement alternatives, background papers, talking points, and reference materials for the specific visits and meetings organized by country or location. Photographs of travel are in the photographs series.

Public statements include transcripts of speeches, interviews, press conferences, and congressional testimony; text of reports, announcements, and news articles; press advisories and correspondent memoranda; and copies of related correspondence. This material is duplicated in seven bound volumes provided by the Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The series titled conferences/hearings/special events covers activities of the Office of Secretary of Defense that were treated separately from other functions. Files generated by Cohen's congressional confirmation hearings for the Secretary's position, the 1997 Kassebaum Report on Gender Integrated Training and Related Issues in the military, preparation for hearings in the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees in Congress, and Y2K readiness are included.

The photographs, nearly 3,000 images, document diplomatic meetings with the Secretary hosting heads of state visiting this country, Secretary and Mrs. Cohen during foreign visits at ceremonies or visiting the troops, and Secretary Cohen with important public figures in this country, either at meetings or social events. These jpeg images taken by Department of Defense photographers are identified in most cases.

The news files are items prepared by the American Forces Information Service on behalf of DOD staff for daily information on world events. Contents are organized by date and by branch of service and topic within each date. Press releases from the Pentagon are included.

The records in this group are divided into five series: official correspondence, trips, public statements, conferences/hearings/special events, photographs, and news. Each series has a corresponding notebook with a hard copy of the Main Menu along with contents for each CD in the series. The photographs are JPEG images of official events including award ceremonies, meetings with dignitaries, and travel. The news files are primarily the research gathered on behalf of DoD staff for daily information on world events.


  • Creation: 1955-2001
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1972-2001

Restrictions on Access

This collection is kept at Fogler Library's offsite storage facility. One week's notice is required for retrieval.

Restrictions on Use

Multi-media, press, public statements, most campaign materials, and all U.S. House of Representatives files open for research; restrictions apply to some campaign files along with many Department of Defense, U.S. Senate and private papers. For series and subseries with restrictions, details are included in the scope and content note at that level of the finding aid.


William S. Cohen was born on August 28, 1940 in Bangor, Maine. His father Reuben, a baker, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant and his mother, Clara, is of Irish-Protestant extraction. Cohen graduated from Bangor High School in 1958, and from Bowdoin College with an A.B. cum laude in Latin in 1962. An accomplished athlete, he was named to the Maine all-state high school and college basketball teams, and, while at Bowdoin, he was inducted into the New England All-Star Hall of Fame. In 1965, he received his LL.B cum laude from Boston University Law School and, during that same year, he became the assistant editor-in-chief of the American Trial Lawyers Association and a partner in a Bangor law firm.

Cohen was the Assistant County Attorney for Penobscot County from 1968 to 1970. In 1968, he was an instructor at Husson College in Bangor. He held an appointment as an instructor in business administration at the University of Maine from 1968 to 1972. Cohen was the vice president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association from 1970 to 1972, and a member of the Bangor School Board from 1971 to 1972. He was a fellow at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University in 1972, and was named one of the U.S. Jaycee's ten outstanding young men in 1975.

Public Life

William Cohen was first elected to public office as a city councilor in Bangor, a position he held from 1969-1972; he was also the mayor of Bangor from 1971-1972. He was elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives in November of 1972 from Maine's Second Congressional District. This election followed an intense campaign during which he walked 600 miles across the district "to find out what is on people's minds." Walking was to become Cohen's trademark; in most of his campaigns he walked through the towns and cities he represented, talking informally with his constituents.

Cohen was elected to the Senate in 1978, when he defeated incumbent William Hathaway. During his congressional career, Cohen was known as a moderate Republican who voted his own way. He sees himself as part of a tradition of independent-minded representatives from Maine, a group including William Pitt Fessenden, who cast a deciding vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Margaret Chase Smith, who became one of the first members of her party to condemn McCarthyism in her 1950 Declaration of Conscience. Cohen continued this tradition of independence, but also became known as a bridge-builder between Republicans and Democrats. On the occasion of Cohen's appointment as Secretary of Defense, President Clinton noted that Cohen is a man "with a creative, independent, inquiring mind" who "is just what is needed for this team."

Cohen was appointed to a number of committees while in Congress, and two of these appointments propelled him into the center of major constitutional crises. In 1974, when Cohen was a freshman member of Congress and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he became involved in the impeachment inquiry concerning President Nixon and his involvement with Watergate. Cohen was one of a small group of Republicans who were the first to break ranks with their party when they voted in favor of Nixon's impeachment.

Cohen became involved in a second constitutional crisis in 1986, when he was appointed to the select Senate committee formed to investigate the sale of weapons to Iran and the funneling of these proceeds to the Contra resistance movement in Nicaragua. At that time he was a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, which had been conducting its own closed-door hearings into the scandal. Cohen was one of only three Republicans to join Democrats in signing the majority report that held President Reagan responsible for the actions of those involved in the Iran-Contra affair.

Legislative Highlights

After Watergate, Cohen became a leading Congressional advocate for more stringent ethics laws, and he has maintained an interest in government ethics throughout his career. He supported the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, which included provisions for the creation of a statutory office of independent counsel. During his years in Congress, one of Senator Cohen's major focuses was overseeing the operation of the government and fighting for policy changes. His principal platforms for this have been the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, of which he was Chairman or ranking member from 1979-1997, and the Aging Committee, which he chaired from 1995-1997.

Cohen served on the Committee on Aging from 1975 to1997, and his numerous legislative actions on behalf of seniors included: the Nursing Home Patients Bill of Rights in 1975; ending mandatory retirement at age 65; and major legislation on long-term care insurance.

Through his service on the Governmental Affairs Committee as a member of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management from 1979-1997, Cohen sought policy changes aimed at making the government more effective. His efforts resulted in: simplification of Federal purchasing practices; improvement of aviation safety; and tighter control on Medicare charges.

Cohen was also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, establishing a national reputation for thoughtful expertise on defense and intelligence issues. In 1983, he publicly introduced the idea of nuclear "build-down," a plan which would require the U.S. and the Soviet Union to eliminate one or more existing weapon for each new one deployed. Although this plan was defeated in committee, it became part of the overall U.S. arms control position. In Senate debate on the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990, Cohen was a strong and early voice insisting on executive compliance with the War Powers Act, urging President Bush to seek a vote from Congress on entry into the war.

Constituent Service

During his twenty-four years in Congress, Cohen and his staff responded to more than 50,000 requests for assistance. In addition, he received and replied to nearly two million letters regarding issues before the Congress, and traveled back to Maine more than five hundred times to meet with constituents and appear at events. In response to the needs of the people of Maine Cohen played leading roles in: helping Maine businesses and industry compete in national and world markets; settling the Indian Land Claims controversy in the late 1970's; supporting Navy Projects for Maine Facilities such as Bath Iron Works and the Brunswick Naval Air Station; and assuring the survival of dairy farmers in New England.

Secretary of Defense

William S. Cohen was sworn in as the nation's 20th Secretary of Defense on January 24, 1997. In an address before Congress on the eve of his confirmation, Cohen stated that his priorities as Secretary would be the maintenance of quality personnel, the ensurance of combat readiness, and the modernization of the nation's forces for the 21st century. He served as Secretary of Defense until January 2001 when Donald Rumsfeld was sworn in to serve with the George W. Bush administration.

President Clinton nominated Cohen for Secretary of Defense after Secretary Perry's announcement that he would retire from the position in 1996 because Clinton perceived the need for bipartisan support for the men and women serving in the military. As a Republican in a Democratic administration, Cohen brought with him to the position the respect he had garnered during a congressional career of supporting a nonpartisan national security policy. A moderate Republican, he served on both the Senate Armed Services and Governmental Affairs Committees from 1979 to 1997 and was a member of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, 1983-91 and 1995-97. He participated in the drafting of several important laws related to defense matters, including the Competition in Contracting Act (1984), the GI Bill (1984), the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act (1986), the Intelligence Oversight Reform Act (1991), and the Federal Acquisition Reform Act (1996).

Significant events in U.S. defense history during Cohen's tenure as Secretary of Defense included the terrorist bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden, Yemen; the largest defense spending increase in 15 years; salary and housing improvements for military personnel; institution of harassment training to protect homosexuals in the military; a successful air campaign in Kosovo; NATO enlargement with three new democracies; reduced nuclear weapons in Russia; and military to military ties with China. During his tenure, Cohen achieved a smooth transition for potential computer problems at the turn of the millennium and led the move toward a high tech digital and paperless Pentagon. Cohen also accomplished the creation of the Joint Forces Command for foreign threats and the Joint Task Force for Civil Support to create a state of readiness in homeland defense for domestic threats such as terrorism. As he left office, Cohen cautioned that Russia, China, asymmetric warfare, and weapons of mass destruction were issues likely to confront incoming Bush administration national security officials.


Writing has been Cohen's principal avocation for many years, and his published works include: Of Sons and Seasons (1978) , a volume of poems. Roll Call (1981), a journal of Cohen's first year in the Senate. Getting the Most Out of Washington (1982) , a manual on cutting through government red tape. The Double Man (1985) , written with Senator Gary Hart, a novel on international espionage and terrorism. A Baker's Nickel (1986) , a second volume of poetry. Men of Zeal (1988) , written with Senator George Mitchell, an account of their experience investigating the Iran-Contra affair. One-Eyed Kings (1991) , a spy thriller involving Soviet and American covert actions that converge in the Middle East. Murder in the Senate (1993) , a mystery written with Thomas B. Allen. Easy Prey: The Fleecing of America's Senior Citizens and How to Stop It (1995) , a work of non-fiction concerning fraud and the elderly.


1500 linear feet

Language of Materials



Personal papers consisting of the records created by Cohen and his staff in the course of Cohen's duties as a member from Maine of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1978, as a U.S. Senator from 1979 to 1997, and as Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2001.

Organization of the Records

Organized into the following six record groups: Private Papers, 1956-1996; U.S. House of Representatives, 1972-1980; U.S. Senate, 1973-1996; Audiovisual materials, 1972-1997; Photos and memorabilia, 1955-1997; and Department of Defense, 1996-2001.

Arrangement of the Records

Original order maintained wherever possible, series and sub-series alphabetical by function or staff member and chronological within the sub-series. U.S. Senate and U.S. House record groups are each arranged into the following five series: Personal/Political/Official, Constituent Service, Legislative, Press/Media, and Office Administration. Audiovisual materials and photos and memorabilia cover Cohen's House and Senate years combined as they were interfiled in this manner by staff.

The papers are arranged in folders in 1/2 cubic foot boxes, except where format requires oversized boxes.

Other Finding Aids

Finding aid on the internet at series-level control and in the repository box-level control.

Custodial History

Papers transferred directly from the Donor's custody after his retirement from the Senate in 1997. Dept. of Defense files transferred when Donor left Secretary of Defense office in early 2001.

Acquisition Information

The collection arrived at the Raymond H. Fogler Library in December, 1996. Packed in record storage boxes and accompanied by a paper index created by archivist Jane Odom, the papers totaled approximately 1300 cubic feet. Most of the records were from Cohen's congressional offices in Washington D.C., but approximately thirty boxes were from his state offices in Maine. Most of the personnel files, routine administrative records, and case files, which include correspondence with federal agencies on behalf of individual constituents, were removed from the collection before it was transferred to the University of Maine.

Related Records

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. has related records created during Cohen's career in Congress and the Department of Defense.

Processing Information

In 1998, archivist Frances O'Donnell appraised the collection and then devised an organizational scheme for it, based on standard archival principles and current theory and practice within the congressional archives field. The boxes were already organized according to general categories suggested by Senate archivist Karen Paul in the1992 editions of The Documentation of Congress, and Records Management Handbook for U.S. Senators and Their Archival Repositories. These two books provided guidelines for the further processing of the collection.

Guide to the William S. Cohen Papers
In Progress
Inventory prepared by Fran O'Donnell and Paige Lilly.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.
Edition statement
Second edition

Repository Details

Part of the Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections Repository

5729 Raymond H. Fogler Library
University of Maine
Orono ME 04469-5729 United States