Overseas allies were under constant attack, but the country was divided over what we should do about it. Opponents objected to involvement, but the government was able to impose embargoes and other sanctions to try to influence belligerents to change their ways.
A day later, the country was united and there was little doubt about what we had to do.
The day, of course, was Dec. 7, 1941, and it was the catalyst to finally focus the industrial might of the United States against the original Axis of Evil.
Despite their government's limited attempt to stir up anti-American sentiment, most Japanese were just as surprised to be at war with the United States as most U.S. citizens were to be fighting Japan.
The Japanese military's gamble didn't pay off, of course, after its navy failed to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers, fuel supplies and other assets in Hawaii, and the attack didn't force the United States to make peace to avoid further aggression.
Ironically, the declaration of war against Japan and its allies saw the U.S. focus its fight on defeating Germany and Italy first, delaying an all-out effort against Japan until the European foes were being defeated.
World War II has been re-fought and re-thought in the seven decades since it started, but there is no denying its continuing affects on the modern world.
The power vacuum created by the defeat of the Axis powers forced the United States to accept a vital role in the world, to limit expansion or aggression by the Soviet Union and China -- a role that resulted in the misadventure in Vietnam that shaped the attitudes of that generation and every generation since.
Then, when the new threat of religious radicals became real, it was natural for us to assume the role of chief anti-terrorism force, a role we've extended far beyond retaliation for the 9/11 attacks.
We're still extricating ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan, only to be forced to keep a wary eye on developments in the Arab Spring countries and the potential for radical Islamists to take power in Syria, next door to Israel, our long-time ally created in a large part because of the atrocities of World War II.
The most recent development is Syria's leader ordering the loading of deadly sarin chemical weapons onto missiles and bombs for use against insurgents. The possibility that it could be used by either side is an ominous prospect.
What are the most important lessons to recall from today's observance of the Pearl Harbor anniversary? Let's hope and pray we have the wisdom to answer that question.