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Last Updated: 06/01/2010
Thoughts on a Recent Celebration in Mexico: An Interesting Parallel
Pandora Hopkins

Pandora Hopkins reflects on the cycles of history, drawing attention to a parallel between French expectations for a successful invasion of Mexico in 1862 and those of the US shortly before the launch of their 2003 campaign in Iraq -- both believing that they would be greeted as liberators by the respective nations they sought to control.

They will greet you with open arms. They will receive you with flowers (1862 and 2003)

The same words were selected in 1862 by French invaders of Mexico as were uttered, in 2003, by U.S. leaders intent upon attacking Iraq.

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla which took place on the fifth of May, 1862. The French minister in Mexico City had advised General Conde de Lorencez, that the citizens of Puebla, a state near the capital, would “not only shower [French soldiers] with magnolia blooms but also welcome them with open arms” (Meyer and Sherman, 1983, p. 388). Thus emboldened, the French general attacked Puebla on the fifth of May--only to be unexpectedly defeated by inferior forces defending their homeland.

Nearly 150 years later, Vice-President Dick Cheney, quoting exiled Iraqis, insisted that “People will greet troops with flowers and sweets… [They] will be greeted as liberators.” But the parallels don’t end with flowers—or greetings that turned out to be more like open fire than open arms. In order to understand the context, we have to go back to 1861, a year before the battle of Puebla.

Benito Juarez, the newly-elected President of Mexico, had announced a moratorium of two years in the repayment of foreign debt. England and Spain expressed displeasure with the decision but did little to actively oppose it. However the situation with France was different. Emperor Napoleon III saw the unpaid debt as an opportunity to begin an imperial venture into Spanish America. Note the word, opportunity. We shall return to its significance.

Thus, 4,500 French troops were deployed to Mexico in 1861. A series of victories—interrupted only by the setback in Puebla—resulted in French occupying forces (with the help of Mexican royalists and clergy) placing Emperor Maximilian I on the throne of Mexico in 1864. In 1867, however, Maximilian was forced to abdicate, and the long period of disorganization, due to foreign entanglements and internal conflicts, ended.

It is within this context that we can understand the use of the word opportunity by historians. "Emperor Napoleon III had sought to bring his `Second World Empire´ to the New World,” according to Meyer and Sherman in The Course of Mexican History, "and Mexico gave him the opportunity.” Let us compare this typical observation with the following—also typical--statement from a 2007 report on the Iraq morass by the policy-making RAND think-tank; "These emerging trends present a number of challenges for the United States, but also opportunities."

And flowers--symbol of joy, of eternal life, present at all rites of passage? Did any one hand out flowers to invading soldiers in either country? Well, the conservative state of Puebla was known to possess a strong sentiment in favor of authoritarian government; as noted above, royalist sympathizers assured Napoleon III’s military leaders that flowers would be forthcoming. That is why Puebla was considered one of those “opportunities.” And, of course, that is why the unexpected routing of the overwhelmingly larger armed forces of France was turned into a holiday that outlasted its historical significance.

It seems likely that there were a few holdouts in Puebla, with or without flowers. Similarly in Iraq, defenders of the homeland turned a promised “piece of cake” by overwhelmingly superior forces into an embarrassment for the invaders. We do know that sporadic groups of disgruntled citizens welcomed the American invaders in Iraq—at first. Joshua Key, a U.S. war resister who published his own story (The Deserter's Tale) wrote about a surprise upon arriving in Iraq: "...on entering Ramadi, we were greeted with waves and cheers. Children racing up toward our vehicles shouted for food and water."

However, it is likely that those children changed their views eventually, as did Joshua Key. After participating in the destruction of some 200 residential homes without, he writes, finding a single lurking terrorist, Joshua Key walked away from the army. His book ends with: “I owe one apology and one apology only, and that is to the people of Iraq” (231).

We may be reminded of the English expression: History repeats itself. But there is an even more relevant popular saying: Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.


Key, Joshua. As told to Lawrence Hill. 2007. The Desterter’s Tale: the Story of an ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away From the War in Iraq. N.Y.: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Meyer, Michael. And William L. Sherman. 1883. The Course of Mexican History. N.Y.: Oxford U.P.

RAND News Pelease. 2010 (March 18). “ Iraq War Reshaped Middle East”

“A Tiny Revolution:Greeted With Flowers.” 2007.

Vega, Eduardo, Rojas. 2000. “What Do Mexicans Celebrate on Cinco de Mayo (May 5)?” San Diego: LA Prensa (May 5)

Pandora Hopkins, Ph.D., taught at Yale University, Rutgers University and CUNY (the City University of New York) before moving to Mexico where she is writing a book, tentatively called House of Cards and the Subliminal Truths That Are Holding It Together, from which this article derives. She also co-directs (with Victoria Fontan) an oral history project, “Voting With Their Feet.” A particular research focus on the political consequences of cross-cultural perception was also manifested by her book, Aural Thinking in Norway (Plenum, 1986); it is a study of the cognitive nature of aural transmission through an analysis of the Hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway.