"Joe Steele"  
Stars Songs of Janis Ian.jpg
Author Harry Turtledove
First Appearance Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian
Publisher DAW
Reprinted 'The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-first Annual Collection'
Collected No
Genre(s) Alternate History
Publication date 2003

"Joe Steele" is an alternate history short story by Harry Turtledove. It was first published in Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian (eds. Janis Ian and Mike Resnick), DAW 2003 (0756401771); and reprinted The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-first Annual Collection (ed. Gardner Dozois), St. Martin's/Griffin 2004 (0312324782, 0312324790). An audio version is available at Escape Pod, read by Stephen Eley.

Turtledove rewrote the story as a longer novel, which was published in 2015.


The idea behind the story comes from a line from a Janis Ian song "God & the FBI" which says that "Stalin was a Democrat". The story's point of departure is that the parents of Iosef Djugashvili (not named that in the story, but clearly recognizable) migrated from the Russian Empire to the United States in June 1878, so that Iosef was born in California, making him a natural born USA citizen. Iosef adopts the name Joe Steele (which in Russian, would basically translate as Joseph Stalin) and becomes a Democratic congressman representing Fresno. In 1932, Steele is in a neck and neck competition with New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the Democratic nominee for President. Steele's chief campaign strategists are Lazar Kagan, Stas Mikoian, and the Hammer, suggesting that their families all just happened to migrate at surprisingly opportune times as Djugashvili's did. Just as the Democratic Convention is deadlocked in a stalemate, the Governor's Mansion in Albany burns down. FDR, unable to flee because he is stuck in a wheelchair upstairs as a result of his polio, is reduced to a charbroiled corpse. Steele announces that he is grieved by the tragic death of his honorable rival, and presents plausible alibis to disprove the lingering suspicion that either he, Kagan, Mikoyan, or the Hammer caused the fire. With no rivals for the nomination, Steele's candidacy is formalized, and he trounces Herbert Hoover in the general election.

President Steele begins slowly expanding the power of his office, eliminating opposition with the enthusiastic help of his old campaign team and a new ally: investigations chief J. Edgar Hoover. Steele initiates a massive "Four Year Plan" of public works projects to end unemployment and build industry. He nationalizes banks and collectivizes farms and factories. He meets with great resistance from capitalist ideologues, the Supreme Court and the military, but conveniently "discovers" that prime members of these groups have been spying for the Nazis, which constitutes treason, a capital crime. After purging these institutions of the condemned traitors, Steele can "pack" the vacancies with loyal yes-men. Soon, the average American is cowed. In his second term (1937-1941) Steele introduces labor camps for political opponents and wrong-thinking citizens. Unrepentant prisoners are exiled to Alaska, North Dakota, and other isolated regions of the country resembling the proverbial Siberia.

Meanwhile, events in Europe spiral towards war, as Adolf Hitler rises to power in Germany, and Leon Trotsky consolidates his control of the Soviet Union. Steele hates both with equal fervor. He refuses to enter the war in 1939, although later he financially supports the United Kingdom and then the Soviet Union, after Hitler's invasion of the latter. Japan attacks the United States in 1941, and Steele (now in an unprecedented third term) takes his country to war against the Axis. After the Soviets push the Nazis out of the crucial city of Trotskygrad, the Normandy invasion takes place in 1944 when Steele fears the possibility of Trotsky's USSR becoming dominant in Europe if the Western powers fail to take a stand. Germany is defeated (with Hitler shooting himself) and attention turns to the Pacific War, which proceeds until December 1945, during Steele's fourth term. The United States and the USSR jointly invade and defeat Japan, which is then divided into USSR-backed North Japan and USA-backed South Japan. After a brief interlude of peace, NJ attacks SJ in 1948.

Back in 1945, however, Joe Steele had learned of Germany's stillborn atomic bomb project. When Steele interrogates Albert Einstein about this technology, Einstein admits that he had kept Steele in the dark, and that "I feared you might use it." A vengeful purge of Einstein, Leo Szilard, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other Jewish physicists follows, until Edward Teller pledges to build the bomb in three years. Steele allows him to do so. In the meantime, the USSR begins its own atomic project with the aid of other captured scientists. The Japanese War ends in a stalemate during Steele's fifth term, when each side drops an atomic bomb on one of each other's Japanese cities in August 1949 (Sapporo gets hit on the 6th, Nagano on the 9th), setting the stage for a Cold War in the 1950s.

Steele dies in early March 1953, shortly after being elected unopposed to his sixth term. Vice President John Nance Garner, who had remained in the shadows for 20 years, succeeds him. Garner, J.E. Hoover, and the Hammer each order the other two shot. Hoover wins this 3-way fight to the death and takes office. The last line of the story implies that Hoover becomes worse than Steele.

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