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Literature / Joe Steele

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"Stalin was a Democrat."
Janis Ian, "God & The FBI"

Joe Steele is an Alternate History Short Story by Harry Turtledove. It was published in Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian in 2003. Essentially it is the answer to the question: "What if Josef Stalin were born in the USA?" Why he'd run for President of course! Armed with his Four Year Plan, Joe Steele sets off to battle his chief political opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Capitalist decadence that brought on the Depression, The US Supreme Court, Adolf Hitler, Trotsky, and the very notion of term limits.

Turtledove later expanded the short story into a novel, published in April 2015.

This story provides examples of:

  • Alternate History:
    • Diverges at the point where Stalin's father isn't an alcoholic and stays with his family, whereupon they choose to emigrate to the US. Joe Steele is the 32nd President of the USA while FDR is assassinated by John Edgar Hoover, the FBI is the Government Bureau of Investigation, WWII is not ended by the atomic bomb and a bloody invasion of Japan ensues, followed by a Japanese Civil War that mirrors the East vs West proxy wars of Korea and Vietnam with Trotsky as Lenin's successor.
    • In this history, Steele and his wife have two children who die of diphtheria in early childhood. In reality, all four of Stalin's childrennote  survived into adulthood and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren live on today, albeit mostly under assumed names to avoid association with him.
  • Allohistorical Allusion:
    • Instead of FDR's "Brain Trust", we have Steele's "Pain Trust".
    • At one point, it is speculated what might have happened to Steele had he remained in Russia, with two alternatives indicating that he might have become a priest or a Red. Stalin did, in fact, study at a seminary before dropping out, and, of course, he did end up as the Soviet Communist leader.
    • Charlie Sullivan at one point muses that Steele would have loved to bash Trotsky's brains out with an ice axe, a reference to Trotsky's real life assassination.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": In this timeline, John Edgar Hoover heads the Government Bureau of Investigation, or GBI, calling to mind both the FBI and the KGB.
  • The Dragon: John Edgar Hoover is Steele's. When Hoover takes power after Steele's death, Richard Nixon, possibly a Leonid Brezhnev Expy fills the role.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Stas Mikoian hints to Charlie that Steele's administration plans to emphasize racial integration, likening the plight of African-Americans and Hispanics to that of Armenians and Jews in Tsarist Russia.
  • Evil Power Vacuum: Shortly after being elected to his sixth term, Joe Steele dies and John Edgar Hoover, The Hammer, and Steele's Vice President all scramble for control.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Douglas MacArthur does this when summoned by Steele, and manages to get a few jabs in before being led to the firing squad. Albert Einstein attempts this when confronted over his failure to inform the Steele administration about the potential of nuclear weapons but his ending is somewhat less dignified.
  • Follow the Leader: There used to be a lot of stories on with a similar premise of some foreign dictator becoming a U.S. President because their parents immigrated while their mother was pregnant.
  • Full-Name Basis: Joe Steele is always Joe Steele.
  • Hanlon's Razor: Steele believes this of Kimmel, Short, and Douglas MacArthur. Not that it does them any good.
  • Historical In-Joke: John Nance Garner is described as "not worth a pitcher of warm spit," which was a common Bowdlerisation of his description of the Vice Presidency: "not worth a bucket of warm piss."
  • Hope Spot:
    • After Steele finally dies, John Nance Garner becomes president, who has Steele's closest cronies Reassigned to Antarctica, and things seem to be looking up... but Garner is successfully impeached, and with any other possible successors winding up dead, John Edgar Hoover Hoover and the GBI take over.
    • Charlie Sullivan escapes the initial purges of the GBI after Hoover takes power, and settles down into a somewhat normal life afterward. The novel ends just as the GBI is knocking on his door at 1:00 AM.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • FDR is almost always Franklin D.—D for Delano—Roosevelt, to contrast his haughty "old money" image compared to Joe Steele's son of immigrants out of Fresno image.
    • Opponents of Steele's policies are referred to as 'wreckers', hearkening the Soviet terminology for opposing the regime under Stalin. As with the Soviet crime of wrecking under Stalin, the actual offensesnote  are more specifically covered under previously existing law but the 'wrecking' charge is broad enough that Steele/Stalin could make it mean whatever he wanted.
  • In Spite of a Nail:
    • Steele's top three associates — his "Pain Trust", are Americanized versions of Stalin's Real Life associates, including:
    • Vince "the Hammer" Scriabin, who is really Vyacheslav (Skryabin) Molotov
    • Lazar Kagan, who is really Lazar Kaganovich
    • Stas Mikoian, who is really Anastas Mikoyan
  • Intrepid Reporter: Mike Sullivan of the New York Post exposes Steele's role in the FDR assassination, and ends up in a labor camp for it. Averted by his brother Charlie, who ends up as Steele's speechwriter after Steele made him a job offer he really couldn't turn down.
  • Just the First Citizen: After Joe Steele's death, Hoover launches a coup and takes all the power of the executive branch for himself, but maintains the title "Director of the GBI."
  • Kangaroo Court: Steele makes liberal use of such to eliminate his opponents, starting with the Supreme Court.
  • Landslide Election: Hoover takes Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Joe Steele takes the country. In his subsequent terms, the landslides get even bigger.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • John Edgar assassinates Franklin Roosevelt by setting a fire. No one raises any alarm at a guy in a wheelchair being caught in the blaze.
    • In the aftermath of Steele's death, Vince Scriabin, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson are all eliminated in various coincidental 'tragic accidents', clearing the way for the Dragon Ascendant.
  • New Era Speech: Joe Steele makes several, talking about plans for the country and his love for the people.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: "The Hammer" is a shadowy backroom political dealer who gets things done. He is based on Molotov, whose name means "hammer". In the expanded novel, "The Hammer" is the nickname of Vince Scriabin, a longtime Steele aide. Vyacheslav Skryabin was Molotov's birth name so the novel name seems to be an Americanization of it.
  • Only Sane Man: Winston Churchill is the only world leader in this timeline with even a shred of basic humanity. He is not afraid to call out Steele and Trotsky on their methods but unfortunately is even more hamstrung than in our timeline and can do little to actually influence matters.
  • Oppressive States of America: Under Joe Steele and his series of Four Year Plans, people are rounded up into camps and forced into labor for massive public works projects.
  • Permanent Elected Official: Joe Steele dies shortly into his sixth term. Due to the time period, the 22nd Amendment is nowhere in sight.
  • Police Brutality: the people who don't quite agree with Joe Steele's way of doing things, "get it in the neck."
  • President Evil: Joe Steele, of course.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman: Prescott Bush becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, despite not even being a lawyer. An actually qualified associate justice has to advise Bush on what to do during Garner's impeachment.
  • Secret Police: In this universe, the FBI has become the oppressive GBI.
  • Shout-Out:
  • The Stoic: The Hammer, "he wouldn't say boo to a goose."
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: Mike Sullivan's plan to get out of the labor camp once war with Japan starts. Because he has a good record as a prisoner, he's assigned to a penal battalion. The penal battalion, while harsher even than the regular army and usually sent into the worst parts of the fighting, is still an immediate upgrade in Mike's living conditions—poorly-fed and clothed soldiers cannot fight effectively, after all. Mike manages to redeem himself by capturing none other than Emperor Hirohito during the invasion of Japan and is switched over to the regular army instead as a reward, although he still has to live in internal exile once he returns to the US. Still, it's as much of a happy ending as anyone in the story gets.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The cooperation between Steele, Trotsky, and Churchill in this timeline is an extreme case of Teeth-Clenched Teamwork, and as a result the Axis is more successful in this timeline (although they still lose).