Jon Stewart’s appearance last week with Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show has drawn days of commentary and critiques, often aimed at Stewart for continuing to defend what some see as "false equivalency" in blasting left and right alike for overheated rhetoric.

One angle has drawn particular attention on the left: Stewart’s claim that liberals who suggest that George W. Bush, for misleading the country into war in Iraq, was a "war criminal" are way out of line. That’s because, he charges,  it’s a "conversation-stopper, not a conversation-starter"—even though it may be "technically true."

While the debate goes on about that, I’m reminded of a previous Stewart moment in this realm in the spring of 2009, when he bravely (if off-handedly) suggested that President Harry Truman was a "war criminal" for using the atomic bomb against Japan without any prior warning. He explained: "I think if you dropped an atomic bomb fifteen miles off short and you said, ‘The next one’s coming and hitting you,’ then I would think it’s okay. To drop it on a city, and kill a hundred thousand people. Yeah, I think that’s criminal." (Actually, the United States used the bomb on two cities, killing 250,000.) 

After he got a good deal of flack overnight, he offered a rare on-air, and abject, apology. (He could have at least said, Yeah, war criminal for Nagasaki, not so much for Hiroshima.) Here’s the transcript, with the video below:

"The other night we had on Cliff May. He was on, we were discussing torture, back and forth, very spirited discussion, very enjoyable. And I may have mentioned during the discussion we were having that Harry Truman was a war criminal. And right after saying it, I thought to myself,  that was dumb. And it was dumb. Stupid in fact.

"So I shouldn’t have said that, and I did. So I say right now, no, I don’t believe that to be the case. The atomic bomb, a very complicated decision in the context of a horrific war, and I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say. Which, by the way, as it was coming out of your mouth, you ever do that, where you’re saying something, and as it’s coming out you’re like, ‘What the f**k, nyah?’ 

"And it just sat in there for a couple of days, just sitting going, ‘No, no, he wasn’t, and you should really say that out loud on the show.’ So I am, right now, and, man, ew. Sorry."

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Harry Truman Was Not a War Criminal
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity


Greg Mitchell co-authored, with Robert Jay Lifton, the book Hiroshima in America. A new edition of his award-winning The Campaign of the Century, on the birth of media politics, has just been published.