Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, page 48

In Memoriam

Talcott Williams Seelye (1922-2006)

By Andrew I. Killgore

Ambassador Talcott Seelye (Courtesy the Seelye Family).

FORMER AMERICAN ambassador to Tunisia and Syria, and eminent Middle East expert Talcott Seelye died at his home in Bethesda, Maryland on June 8. Born in Beirut, Lebanon to American parents who were professors at the American University of Beirut, Talcott early on absorbed the rhythms of the Arabic language. He later studied at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, where he became one of our best linguists.

Seelye had two Middle East-related assignments in the State Department: first as director of Arabian Peninsula affairs and then as the director of Arabian North affairs. He also was senior deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs. When Ambassador Francis Meloy, Jr. was assassinated in Beirut in 1976, President Gerald Ford appointed Seelye as special emissary to Lebanon. There he oversaw the evacuation of 200 Americans by the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet.

Talcott Seelye was proud of his New England heritage. In the early days the family was wealthy, but a consensus seems to have been reached among its members that the pursuit of wealth was not a worthy goal for a great family—which counted among its ancestors adventurer Robert Seelye, who came to Massachusetts with John Winthrop in the early 1600s. After that the family produced professors and college presidents.

Seelye’s great-grandfather was president of Amherst College in Massachusetts, from which Talcott graduated Phi Beta Kappa. His great uncle was the first president of Smith College. His daughter, Kate, a Beirut-based journalist, herself graduated from Amherst, which later honored her with a Doctorate of Humane Letters. His son, Talcott, Jr., also attended Seelye’s beloved Amherst. When Talcott’s father returned to the United States from Lebanon, he became the first president of Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York. The rigorous sense of ethics that he absorbed from his New England heritage stayed with Seelye throughout his career and his life.

An example of his standing by his convictions occurred in 1953, when President Eisenhower assigned Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Producers Association, to divide the Jordan River waters between Israel and the Arab states. When Johnston reached Amman, Jordan, where Talcott was assigned to the American Embassy, the staff told Johnston that the Arabs politically could not agree with Israel.

Johnston took the staff’s answer to mean it disagreed with him personally, when in fact it had simply given its honest assessment of the situation. Johnston had everyone transferred, except Seelye. He stood by his guns and remained at the Embassy.

The Zionists did everything they could to undercut Talcott, saying his sympathies toward the Arabs were so great that he sacrificed American interests. This, of course, was a scurrilous lie. He was a patriotic American, with superb judgment, good sense and with deep skills in his craft. Gradually, through the years, as he appeared on radio and television programs about the Middle East, and through his writings, he became recognized as the leading spokesman for the State Department’s often maligned Arabists.

Talcott Seelye was married to the beautiful Joan Hazeltine. The Seelyes’ three daughters, Lauren Harris, Amanda Salzman and Kate Seelye, paid homage to their father at a large memorial service held in Bethesda, Maryland. Two of their grandaughters, Kate and Anne Salzman, read exerpts from the Bible and the Qur’an.

Andrew I. Killgore, a retired foreign service officer and former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, is publisher of the Washington Report.