Selig S. Harrison

Jan 05, 2017
Selig Harrison

Camden — Selig Seidenman Harrison, 89, a journalist, scholar and author who specialized in U.S. relations with South and East Asia, died Dec. 30, 2016, of myelodysplasia.

Harrison was The Washington Post bureau chief in New Delhi and Tokyo in the 1960s and 1970s. He also covered New Delhi for the Associated Press in the 1950s and was managing editor of The New Republic.

He was a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for 22 years, director of Asian studies at the Brookings Institution, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, and was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He played a leading role in arranging the nuclear agreement with North Korea that suspended the North Korean nuclear program from October 1994 until December 2002. A centennial review of the Carnegie Endowment’s achievements pointed to his three-hour meeting with the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung on June 9, 1994, as “ending a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program that brought the United States to the brink of war.”

Kim Il Sung’s acceptance of Harrison’s proposal for a freeze on its nuclear program in exchange for civilian nuclear reactors and improved relations with the United States set the stage for the detailed agreement negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter a week later that was formalized in an October U.S.-North Korean accord known as the “Agreed Framework.”

A well-known contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Le Monde Diplomatique and other publications, Harrison campaigned from 1982 to 1988 for the United Nations-brokered agreement with the Soviet Union that led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The agreement, negotiated by U.N. mediator Diego Cordovez at Geneva in April 1988, led to the Soviet withdrawal starting in May. Harrison and Cordovez chronicled the six-year diplomatic struggle leading to the withdrawal in their 1992 book, "Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal."

Throughout his career, Harrison’s writing emphasized the importance of U.S. ties with India and the negative effect on U.S.-India relations resulting from U.S. military aid to Pakistan.The best known of his five books were "India: The Most Dangerous Decades" (1960), an analysis of the centrifugal stresses generated by India’s complex linguistic map, and "Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement" (2002), which was named Best Professional and Scholarly Book of 2002 in Government and Political Science by the Association of American Publishers.

In his writing, Mr. Harrison challenged U.S. approaches to South Asia, Afghanistan, Japan, China, and Korea, sought U.S. engagement with each country’s history, politics, identity and interests, and advocated the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons.

He is survived by his brother, Mark Harrison, a Phoenix lawyer, and sister-in-law Ellen G. Harrison; son Coleman Harrison and daughter-in-law Claire Gosselin; daughter Kathreen (Kit) Harrison and son-in-law Brian Boyd; and grandchildren Kathreen (Katie) Harrison, Gabriela Richard, Fiona Boyd, and Gavin Boyd.

He was born March 19, 1927, to Coleman Harrison and Myrtle Seidenman Harrison in Wilkinsburg, Pa. As a young teenager, he demonstrated his writerly tendencies with the publication and distribution on local buses of a flyer titled "Why Pick on the Poor Snake?"

Selig graduated as the valedictorian from Penn Hills High School, where he edited the school newspaper.

He earned a bachelor's egree from Harvard in 1949 and was president of the Harvard Crimson, when he interviewed John F. Kennedy during his successful run for Congress. While serving in the Navy from 1945-46, he edited the newsletter of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Harrison married Barbara Johnston Oct. 10, 1951, in Delhi, India, after a courtship that culminated in his marriage proposal by telegram. At the time, he was working as a correspondent for the Associated Press. They honeymooned in Kashmir and then lived at the Cecil Hotel, in Delhi. They settled in Chevy Chase, Md., in 1956, where they maintained a home until they moved to Ingleside at Rock Creek, a Washington, D.C., retirement home, in 2005.

Their years in Washington were interspersed with periods of living in Japan, India, Cambridge (as a Nieman Fellow), Hawaii and New York City. From 1977 on, they spent happy summers on Islesford, where they owned a home. Barbara died at Ingleside in 2011. Barbara was a feminist and strong intellect whose passing affected Selig deeply. He mourned her until the day he died.

Selig moved to the Camden Hills Villa in 2013, where he was cared for during his final illness by his daughter, Kit, and by an outstanding team that included Elizabeth Tibbetts, Marcia Witham, Ira Mandel and Charlotte Simon.

A celebration of his life will be held at Ingleside Rock Creek, 3050 Military Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., March 11 at 2 p.m. (contact:

His ashes will be laid to rest beside Barbara’s in Islesford. Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to Massachusetts Peace Action Education Fund, 11 Garden St, Cambridge, MA 02138, (which is managed by his son, Coleman), or to the American Civil Liberties Union, 25 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004.

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