Talcott W. Seelye, 84, a retired Foreign Service officer and former ambassador, died of pancreatic cancer on June 8 at his home in Bethesda, Md.
Ambassador Seelye was born in Lebanon, where his father, Laurens Seelye, was a professor at the American University of Beirut. He was a descendant of Captain Robert Seeley, who arrived from England with John Winthrop in 1630, and a long line of prominent educators. His great-grandfather, Julius Hawley Seelye, was president of Amherst College; one great-uncle Laurenus Clarke Seelye, was the first president of Smith College; another, Talcott Williams, was the first dean of the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University. His great-grandmother was a cousin of William and Henry James.
In 1943, Amb. Seelye interrupted college, to enlist in the army as a private, attaining the rank of captain. He attended Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., was an instructor at the Camp Ritchie intelligence training center and served in Iran with the Persian Gulf Command and in Italy with Allied Force Headquarters.
Amb. Seelye graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1947 from Amherst College, where he was president of the Student Council twice, head of the senior honorary society (Scarab), won the “First Citizen” of the College Award and played varsity soccer and basketball.
Following graduation from Amherst, Amb. Seelye taught at Deerfield Academy for a year, and then entered the Foreign Service in 1948. His first assignment, in 1950, was in Germany as a Kreis Resident officer under the U.S. High Commission. He was commissioned as an FSO in 1951.
Amb. Seelye’s first posting was to Anman as a political officer from 1952 to 1954. In 1955 he was sent to the FSI Arabic Language School in Shemlan, Lebanon. He served as consul in Kuwait from 1956 to 1960, returning to Washington as director of Arabian Peninsula affairs from 1961 to 1964. In 1963, Amb. Seelye accompanied Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker on his trip to the Middle East to negotiate the end of the Saudi-Egyptian confrontation over Yemen. He was detailed to the National War College for the 1964-1965 academic year.
In 1965, Amb. Seelye was sent to Saudi Arabia, serving there as DCM and chargé d’affaires. In 1965 he received a personal letter of commendation from the Secretary of Defense for his service in Saudi Arabia in negotiating the first U.S.-Saudi arms agreement. From Jeddah, he returned to Washington, where he served as director of Arabian North affairs from 1968 to 1972. Amb. Seelye received praise from the White House for his work in 1970 as head of the Jordan Task Force that dealt with the “Black September” hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of three passenger-laden commercial aircraft that were forced to land in the Jordanian desert.
He was appointed ambassador to Tunisia in 1972, and served there until 1976. While serving in Tunisia, Amb. Seelye initiated and coordinated, with the commander of the Sixth Fleet, the rescue of hundreds of Tunisians stranded in floodwaters. In 1976, during the Lebanese civil war, President Ford sent him to Lebanon as a special emissary following the assassination of ambassador Francis Meloy. There he oversaw the evacuation of American citizens and embassy staff by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. In the same year, Amb. Seelye was named senior deputy assistant Secretary for African affairs.
He was appointed ambassador to Syria in 1978, achieved the rank of career minister in 1980 and retired from the Foreign Service in 1981.
A fluent Arabic linguist, Amb. Seelye served in six Arab countries and developed close ties with three prominent Arab leaders: King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan and President Bourguiba of Tunisa. He worked to improve strained U.S.-Syrian relations with President Hafez al-Assad. Throughout his career and in retirement, he urged the U.S. to pursue a balanced policy in the Middle East.
Following retirement, Amb. Seelye established his own Middle East consultancy, known as Talcott Seelye Associates. He also served as director of Middle East Research Services for a Boston-based company from 1982 to 2002. In this connection, he published a bimonthly newsletter for American firms and regularly conducted orientation trips to the Middle East for American businessmen, mainly oil analysts. He authored newspaper and magazine articles, appeared frequently on national and international television and radio programs and lectured throughout the country.
Amb. Seelye served on the Board of Trustees of Amherst College from 1982 to 1986 and received honorary degrees from both Amherst and Washington and Jefferson Colleges. He was a member of the Cosmos and Kenwood Clubs, the National Advisory Council of Hampshire College, the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, the Middle East Institute, the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, AFSA and DACOR. He also served on the boards of AMIDEAST and Americans for Middle East Understanding. From 1988 to 1000, he was founder and president of the American-Tunisian Association. He was an avid tennis player and loved to dance.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Joan Hazeltine of Norwich, Conn.; four children: Lauren Seelye Harris of Washington D.C., Ammanda Salzman of Riverside, Conn., Talcott Seelye Jr. of New York City and Kate Seelye of Beirut, Lebanon; three grandchildren and two sisters.
Foreign Service Journal, October 2006, pages 92 – 93.
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