Photo by Robert Burroughs
Ann Watson takes a shortwave radio to bed with her in order to catch Radio Moscow.
Ann Watson bustles around her kitchen, serving up dark steaming coffee and warm cherry strudel, and she thinks about the Communists marching into her living room. The vision strains the imagination, for Watson’s home nestles behind a luxuriant wall of greenery, protected from University City by a chain-link barricade. Chrome in her kitchen sparkles and her cool green plants look like they would repel impudent dust; warm wooden panels contrast with white walls. But one can understand Watson wanting to protect this bourgeois citadel of well-polished belongings from invasion.
Watson started talking about politics fifteen years ago, in a San Diego Community College classroom where she was teaching German to adults.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Invaders smashed Watson’s well-ordered world once before, in her homeland of Austria, only they were Nazis, rather than Russians. They took everything from her then, and she figures it can happen again, but this time there is a difference. Then she was a teenager, as innocent of political violence as a Chopin sonata. Now she is a matron with a mission. She is a one-woman anti-Communist information service, and she brandishes words and facts against totalitarianism.
“The American people are so naive. Everything is Disneyland."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
She protests she’s not a crusader, and she certainly doesn’t look like one. She looks like a Viennese hausfrau. Her figure is compact, but well padded; her blond hair reaches to her shoulders, and laugh lines accentuate eyes which twinkle with wit. Although she speaks English flawlessly, the German accents still shade her words. Plump rosy cheeks and a double chin frame her broad, ever-moving lips; she talks and smiles simultaneously – and incessantly.
Watson started talking about politics fifteen years ago, in a San Diego Community College classroom where she was teaching German to adults. The students wanted to know what Nazi and then Russian occupation had been like, so Watson answered their questions. She never really has gotten off the subject. From the classroom, she progressed to a variety of other forums: innumerable lectures, daily and then weekly talk shows for KSDO Radio in 1973, then two years explaining “Why I Love America’’ on KLRO. In the summer of 1976 she started beaming out over the television airwaves. Now, Ann Watson Reports at 7:30 p.m. Mondays over Mission Cable Channel Two.
Under the harsh television lights, Watson is as composed as Walter Cronkite. A few strains of Chopin filter into the stark studio, cameras start recording, and the woman’s smile broadens.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m here to bring you the news that is left out.” She speaks as slowly and steadily as if she were reading the entire broadcast off cue cards; in fact, she relies only on unflappable poise and a handful of notes. She ticks off items with the glee of a child revealing poorly kept secrets: Jimmy Carter recently signed two United Nations covenants disavowing property rights, she informs her audience. Also, a cholera epidemic is spreading to the Balkan states, and Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps is urging more joint U.S.-Soviet ventures. “I’m trying desperately to be much more accurate than the people at NBC,” Watson later explains. “They have all these millions of dollars, and they have a cast of thousands, and what do they come up with? Nothing! I’m competing with a multi-million-dollar industry. And I think I’m doing better than they are, considering the little I have to work with. I’m trying to give people a kaleidoscope of every important item that has happened in the past week.”
As a child, Watson never expected to compete with any multi-million-dollar television empires. Born Annemarie Seitle von Seltie, she was the daughter of an Austrian baron, and she learned French, English, Latin, Greek, and the appropriate social graces. She dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, and the vision seemed tangible in the cultured, intellectual Vienna of the early 1930s. But on March 12, 1938, she and her fellow countrymen heard with horror that German troops had crossed the Austrian border, aided by treachery on the part of Seiss Inquart, the minister of the interior.
Watson has written two books on her wartime experiences, and she describes those days in sharp detail. She wears her perpetual smile as she talks, but her words carry the drama of the events. Under the Nazis, the young woman’s world disintegrated: food ran short, universities yielded to the brutal propaganda, Gestapo agents began arresting Jews and resisters. Among the latter were Watson’s parents, who were aiding orphaned Jewish children. After years of tense subterfuge, the Nazis sent Watson’s father off to die in the battle of Stalingrad, while they imprisoned her mother in a concentration camp. She went insane.
“Liberation” by the Russians proved just as bad as the Nazi occupation; it spelled more regimentation, more terror, more privation. Finally, Watson began to fear for her life, and one dark, rainy night she began walking toward the heavily guarded border between the Russian and American sectors of the city. She successfully dodged patrols until the very end of her route; then Russian soldiers stopped her, asked for her identity papers, and beat her unconscious with rubber truncheons.
American military police found her and pulled her to the other side, however, and there she finally secured a job. She worked as an interpreter for the American intelligence division, where she met her ultimate ticket to freedom.
He was John Sears, head of the American intelligence division, who fell in love with young Annemarie and married her in 1949. They moved to Wichita, Kansas, but two years later Sears was killed in a freak automobile accident. Somehow, the young bride held onto her sanity and eventually remarried a young engineer. Then in the early 1960s, she and Jack Watson pulled up stakes and moved to San Diego.
The balmy climate and abundant lifestyle, so different from Eastern Europe, made it easy to blot out recollections of the war. “For years, I closed my mind to even thinking back about it,” she recalls. “I wanted to totally forget what had happened. I wanted to be an American. I wanted to live the American life completely. For years, I even lied about my accent. People would come up to me at parties and ask if I was European, and I would tell them no, I was from New York!” With time, however, the emotional scars toughened to protect her, and when the language students besieged her with eager questions, Watson finally was ready to answer. The questions shocked her. “I found out very quickly that the average Americans, especially the younger generation born after the war, knew nothing about Europe. They knew nothing about German history. They had read some of the textbooks that had been written by American Ph.D.s who had no idea what was going on over there. I found out that they were totally confused about fascism, Communism, socialism. They understood none of these things. When I saw that, I thought, well now, the American people are going to go through a terrible experience unless they learn to understand.”
The classroom exchanges led to a speech at the 12:30 Club in La Jolla, then to a debate against four leftists at UCSD, which Watson won. “After that, everyone came to me and said you ought to write a book.” She took their advice.
Promoting it, she traveled all over the West, and initial reaction was warm. Attacks on her only started, she claims, “when I started to give speeches on college campuses, and when I started to meet the educated left, the pseudo-intellectual professor, the pseudo-intellectual graduate student, the Americans who were totally disillusioned with the American way of life, who thought a starry-eyed person like me who said what a great country this is was completely off the beam.”
She recalls one incident in 1972 at the Bakersfield junior college. “I spoke there and I tell you the reaction I got. I came in there and there were all the Chicanos, the blacks, the women’s libbers, and those types, and the rest of the student body that was just nice, interested people. And I started my speech by saying, ‘I came here to tell you what America means to me. I love America and I want you to know why. It may have its faults, but I have been on the other side looking in.’ ”
At that point, a professor stood up and stomped out, announcing that he didn’t want to listen to “this garbage.” Watson says, “Before I could even get into my speech, the Chicanos started chanting, along with the women’s libbers, who were mostly ugly and who wore no bras, which was the first thing I noticed about them. And the blacks were screaming, saying they were being mistreated and they lived in ghettos. So I went to each of these groups and I would try to reason with them, and I would say to the blacks, sure, I don’t doubt for one minute that you’ve had rough times, but do you know what a ghetto is? A ghetto is a place surrounded by a wall. People can’t go out or in. I said, ‘If you lived in Harlem, New York, and you saved your money and you did a little hard work, you could get on a bus and you could go to another town and you could go to a community college for free, and you could read books, and you were not sent to jail, and you were not beaten, and you were not starved. You were probably insulted and you were probably not given all of your equal rights all of the time, but my God, you don’t know how lucky you are that you are in this country.’
“They threw their lunches at me,” she says indignantly. “They screamed at me. They yelled at me. I took my shoes off and I waded into the crowd and I talked to them. Finally, they threatened me. It got very ugly.” Still, this kind of hostility didn’t stop her. “In those two years of promoting my book, I realized several things. I realized the American people have no idea what it’s like to live under a dictatorship. They have no feeling for history. They have no understanding of the political situation and they’re being taken advantage of by various pressure groups in this country who have certain purposes in using them. Finally, I said. ‘My God, here you live in the greatest country in the world and you want to bring into this country all these terrible things?’ I said, ‘This is an island of freedom in this world and I want to keep it that way!’ ”
She preached that message on KSDO until the station switched to an all-news format and phased out most of the talk shows. In the search for a new medium, she talked to all three major television stations but found “most people didn’t even hear me out because of my anti-Communist reputation. Whenever I talked to them, they said I was too controversial.” Finally. Channel Two tested her and accepted the format of her weekly program, which has been supported by Watson and sponsors such as an El Cajon Boulevard coin shop, a Los Angeles commodities firm, and (currently) a North County clothing boutique whose owner believes in Watson’s message.
Content varies from week to week. Sometimes Watson reads a straight half-hour of news. But she often enlivens that by showing films: the Panama Canal, Alexander Solzhenitzen addressing the American Civil Liberties Union, a Red Chinese pilot who recently defected to Japan. Guest interviews have featured a retired FBI agent, the press representative of the South African government, Community College President Lou Ridgeway, an antibusing spokesman, City Councilman Bill Mitchell. She also uses her show to plug a monthly newsletter which she sends to supporters all over the country.
The December issue of it declares, “Those who own NYSE stocks have approximately 60 days remaining to watch the active liquid market for their securities to be wiped out. . .as over 1,000 (of the 1,500 or so listed NYSE stocks) will be DELISTED based on the Securities and Exchange Commission ruling on the matter.” Another item reads, “South Africa became convinced by Secret Service reports that a full-scale Russian-instigated revolution was planned. The counter measures taken by the government have been used by Carter, Owen, and others as the occasion for an attack on South Africa in HARMONY WITH RUSSIAN POLICY. . All Watson’s news-style items are printed with detailed attributions: Die Staatszeitung, The L.T. Patterson Strategy Letter, European Information Service. A back page ad suggests the newsletter as a “Useful Gift.” “American wire services refuse to carry news of importance - the media is withholding important facts from the public. The media has become a fourth branch of government and only an elite circle is allowed to know what is really going on in the world.”
Watson is at ease in her living room and she’s eager to share something about herself. She may look like a Viennese housewife, but she sees herself as a sophisticated news gathering operation. Every day she reads the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, and weekly she consumes Die Welt, Der Spiegel, Barron’s, and economic and intelligence reports from around the world. Reading is just the beginning, however; Watson processes the information. Inside a closet in her tidy sitting room are files worthy of the CIA – stacks of publications from all over the globe, folders stuffed with translations of foreign broadcasts, a metal cabinet crammed with speeches prepared by Watson on an encyclopedic range of subjects: Turkey, Siberia, nihilism, Albania, the Yalta Conference, dozens of others. Watson owns a shortwave radio, which she often takes to bed with her in order to catch Radio Moscow in the wee hours of the morning. “The so-called right-wing publications and the people on the left and the majority of wire services don’t take the trouble that I take to bring this information to the world that affects all our livelihood. I’m not just making this up!” Watson says excitedly. “I’m not just some fly-by-night girl that wants to sit on television and knows nothing. I don’t say, ‘I heard it on the radio.' I can tell you exactly when and where I heard it, and just what was said.” Watson dreams of using this information as a finely honed tool, to make people demand concrete changes. “First, I would like people to realize that militarily we are too weak. The situation is very similar to the 1930s. We keep appeasing the big wolf. We keep feeding him so he won’t bite. But people have to realize that he keeps getting stronger and stronger.”
The economy should be healthier, Watson rails. The country should be “internally stronger.” She smiles grimly when she mentions the latter because she knows people have called her a McCarthyist in the past, and the charge irritates her in its simplism. “He (McCarthy) was not smooth, not sophisticated. He drank too much. He lost his cool. . . .McCarthy made a big mistake in the way he did the thing, but basically, he was doing the right thing.”
Treason can’t be tolerated, Watson says flatly, although a fine line separates sedition and free speech. “If I say to you, ‘I’m reading Marx. I’m interested in what he has to say and certain things appeal to me,’ fine. But when you form a cell, when you say you’re going to infiltrate, to collaborate with foreign powers, then there is a difference.”
Jane Fonda and Daniel Ellsberg should have been locked up for their activities during the Vietnam War, she pronounces, even though “you can’t accomplish very much by locking them up because that just makes them martyrs. . . .The only real solution is that the public knows and understands the truth. If they did, they would not follow false prophets.”
The fine distinctions, the hair-splitting, don’t disconcert her. “You see, I come from a long line of attorneys, and I know very well that you cannot come up with a pat answer for everything. Each case is different. In a free society, you have to look at each individual situation with an "open mind.” Americans generalize too much, she complains. “The American people are so naive. Everything is Disneyland. They can only see bad or only see the good. They can’t see reality, and I am sick of that!”
Americans stir mixed emotions in Watson. On the one hand, she laments, “We are copying the mistakes that have been made in other countries. Jimmy Carter’s policies are the same policies that the National Socialists put forth.” Yet on the other hand, Americans give Watson cause for optimism, an optimism which she bases “on one real accurate thing from European history: the European people have always had to cooperate and coexist with one sort of dictatorship after another; for centuries, Europeans were used to cooperating with hunger, with death, with the struggle for survival. But you see, America is an experiment in freedom,” she says. “Now it’s much harder to impose a dictatorship here. It’s like trying to imprison a sack of fleas! As you tighten the noose, resistance builds, and as the government hardens, the people never will accept it. And that’s my great hope.”
People will resist if they just know the facts, she fervently believes. Like her, they will say No to Communism if they just understand what totalitarianism involves. And this is the heart of her mission. This is why she listens to Radio Moscow at four a.m., why she churns out the grim newsletters, why she braved the chanting hordes. She believes if only she could get out the word to everyone, if only she could sit down and talk to people, they would see the light and act accordingly.
Sitting in her study, which contains all her files, Watson offers an illuminating example. “You see, I could even get out and take one of the black leaders, one of the militant radicals, and if I could bring him back here and spend some time talking to him I could completely change his outlook on the world. I would tell him about Rhodesia and Uganda and the facts of this country, and when he would leave he’d go out and he’d want to work for this country. He’d want to preserve the freedom we have.”
This is the vision that drives her. “If a country is taken over from within, it is always because people do not know the truth. With information, they would vote for the right people instead of the wrong people. They would not be misled. They would not be victims!” She is sublimely confident, genuinely excited. “If everyone knew the truth, the world we know probably would not exist!”