My Journey with An Affair of Spies

With his new novel An Affair of Spies coming out tomorrow, Ronald H. Balson visits the site to share what compelled him to write this historical thriller, and what he hopes readers will get from it.

Isn’t it interesting how one event, simple in its origin, will lead to another? One might say it sets up a chain reaction. So it was that while researching a project, I came across a typewritten letter that led me on the road to write An Affair of Spies. In 1939, A. Einstein, of Old Grove Road, Peconic, Long Island wrote a letter to F.D. Roosevelt, White House, Washington D.C. In two short pages, Albert Einstein sought to inform President Roosevelt about the consequences of recent scientific research. He felt it was his “duty” to bring a certain matter to the President’s attention. Due to the work being done by Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and others, he said, “it has become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power…would be generated.” While this had the promise of a new and important source of energy, he warned that “extremely powerful bombs of a new type could be constructed.”  

9_12_Einstein Letter to FDR, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum


Einstein expressed concern because America’s nuclear research was being conducted in a disjointed manner at several different U.S. universities on limited budgets, while Germany’s was focused and well-funded. Einstein pushed for “quick action” because he knew that Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the birthplace of nuclear fission, was also working on developing a bomb. He knew that the Institute had several brilliant nuclear scientists—he worked there himself until 1933—but no one outside of Germany knew how exactly close the Institute was to achieving a workable bomb.  

Einstein recommended the appointment of a national director to consolidate the research. Roosevelt, duly alarmed, appointed General Leslie Groves to head up the Army’s Manhattan Project. Of course, this was all top secret.  Ordinary citizens going about their day-to-day lives in the early 1940s didn’t have a clue that America and Nazi Germany were locked in a deadly competition to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. Imagine the universal anxiety had that been public knowledge? But it was known only to a few, the few who realized that if Germany was the first to succeed with a working atomic bomb, Hitler would use it without a second thought. On London, on Moscow. Wherever. No compunction.

General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer (courtesy

General Groves formed a select group of intelligence officers to discover how far along Germany was and report back. They were to accompany the Allied Forces once the invasion of the European continent began. But that did not occur until 1945. So, in the mind of a fiction writer, what if Groves were able to smuggle a couple of young Americans across wartime Europe and into Berlin to discover the information?

I wanted to create that fictional story. After all, the historical background has already been written for me. It would be my job to create new characters and invent a plot to weave through that historical background, all the while being very careful not to misstate the critical facts. The story should be crafted so that it is exciting, romantic, and yet fundamentally accurate. My protagonist would be a young soldier, one who was fluent in German, and familiar with Berlin and the Institute. Perhaps he would be a native Berliner, an expat, who fled Germany a few years earlier. To avoid detection, we would disguise him as a Wehrmacht Captain.

In our story, General Groves would assign him to contact a scientist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, learn the details of the German nuclear program. Where are the raw materials stored? Where is the German nuclear reactor? Have they achieved critical mass in a chain reaction? Naturally, our young soldier would lack sufficient scientific knowledge to make such an analysis. We would give him a companion, a theoretical physicist, intimately familiar with nuclear physics. Perhaps a young, beautiful theoretical physicist. She would know what questions to ask. She would have the ability to assess the state of Germany’s nuclear program.  

Like all historical fiction, our story should be informative. Our story should paint a picture of wartime Berlin. The reader should come away knowing something about the subject matter: splitting the atom, nuclear fission, chain reactions. Our readers would become more familiar with the era’s principal figures. One might say that during that era there was an explosion of nuclear science. Yet above all, our story should be fast paced, tense and romantic.  

The goal of an historical fiction writer is to create genuine characters with whom the reader can identify. Their success or failure would become important. In that way the reader would be transported back in time and experience the era in a more personal way. I had that experience in creating An Affair of Spies.


About An Affair of Spies by Ronald H. Balson:

Nathan Silverman grew up in Berlin in the 1920s, the son of a homemaker and a theoretical physicist. His idyllic childhood was soon marred by increasing levels of bigotry against his family and the rest of the Jewish community, and after his uncle is arrested on Kristallnacht, he leaves Germany for New York City with only his mother’s wedding ring to sell for survival.

While attending an evening course at Columbia in 1942, Nathan notices a recruitment poster on a university wall and decides to enlist in the military and help fight the Nazi regime. To his surprise, he is quickly selected for a special assignment; he is trained as a spy, and ordered to report to the Manhattan Project. There he learns that the Allies are racing to develop a nuclear weapon before the Nazis, and a German theoretical physicist is hoping to defect. The physicist was a friend of his father’s, and Nathan’s mission is to return to Berlin via France and smuggle him out of Europe.

Nathan will be accompanied by Dr. Allison Fisher, a brilliant young scientist who can speak French; he travels to her lab at the University of Chicago for a crash course in nuclear physics, then they embark on their adventure. Nathan and Allison soon develop feelings for one another, but as their relationship deepens they move ever closer to their dangerous goal. Will they be able to escape Europe with the defector and start a new life together, or will they fail their mission and become two more casualties of war? 

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