In the first post of this series of four [See August 4, 2007], I argued that the Cold War could have been greatly shortened had the US and Britain not appeased Stalin. The second post (August 24, 2007) contained supporting statements from high Soviet officials for that theory, but those statements also suggested that the appeasement began earlier. In the third post (August 27, 2007) documented examples of this early "appeasement": for the British it was really a betrayal of Poland, for the US it was indecisive leadership.
So what about the Cold War? Could it have been avoided? A follower of the philosophy of Tolstoy would say , "no", it was the inevitable consequence of the flow of history and millions of small decisions of millions of people in a stream of life.
Nothing done at Yalta could have prevented it - the ground gains of the Reed Army gave Stalin his ability to dominate Eastern Europe and to begin to project communist ideology around the world. At that point, Tolstoy was right.
As a gedanken ["thought"] experiment, suppose (1) that Franklin Roosevelt dies in January 1945 after inauguration, is succeeded by Harry Truman (who did not like Stalin and was very decisive), and (2) the US A-bombs had been built & proven at the same time. So Truman drops the bomb on Berlin, kills all top Nazis causing the German Army to surrender in place. Stalin, fearing the US A-bomb, does NOT occupy more of Eastern Europe and permits true democratic governments to form. [Stalin's postwar fear of the US is documented in the memoirs of Khrushchev who was personally involved at the highest levels.]
Yes, this requires very fine timing and precise changes. That shows that Tolstoy's thinking have much to say to it in the larger scheme of European historical developments of the 20th century.
Here's a simpler gedanken experiment. Replace Franklin Roosevelt with Teddy Roosevelt. They were very distant relatives - fifth cousins; interestingly, Teddy was the uncle of Eleanor Roosevelt, too. Teddy was a vigorous personality with a strong interest in projecting the US into world affairs. He disliked the German tyrant in World War I.
So a President Theodore Roosevelt in 1936 and 1938 might have given the British and French enough backbone to stop Hitler early. Or barring that, his vigorous support and principals might have stopped any backsliding from the Atlantic Charter. That could have provided the early resistance that Soviet officials said might have stopped Stalin from expanding. The Cold War would have been confined to the Soviet Union alone as it already existed in the 1930s and died along with Stalin in 1953.
So perhaps Tolstoy was wrong. One strong leader might have prevented the World War II, the Cold War and Stalin's expansion into Eastern Europe. "Perhaps" is all we can say.
One more gedanken experiment: Let Teddy Roosevelt win the election as President in 1912. When World War I begins, he brings the US into the war quickly, perhaps upon the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. [He is know to have favored an early US entry into the war.] The US mobilizes and has enough troops in Europe in 1917 to defeat decisively the Germans BEFORE the Bolshevik Revolution in fall 1917. He dominates the peace conference and prevents a harsh peace from being imposed on Germany. The combination of the decisive military defeat and the fair peace prevent the German bitterness that provided Hitler with fertile ground to grow the Nazi party. No Nazis, no Bolsheviks, no Hitler, no Stalin, hence no Mao ... on and on.
So one strong leader at the right time and place "perhaps" could have changed the ENTIRE 20th century.
Gedanken experiments in world affairs can illuminate much about history and about how current leadership might both have influence or have little. Is W a captain leading a ship or a cork in a stream? We might no know for years, but I think that great opportunities were squandered by him.