Historical Dictionary



The word “Cao Dai” in Vietnamese evokes the supreme or elevated being, which brings peace, harmony, and salvation to the world. The Cao Dai faith is a syncretic, monotheistic religion, combining elements of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Humanism. The full name of the religion in Vietnamese is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do. It is hierarchically structured and based organizationally upon the model of the Roman Catholic Church. A “Pope” (Ho Phap) thus leads the Cao Dai Church, with its “Holy” See in Tay Ninh province along the southern Vietnamese-Cambodian border.

The Cao Dai faith emerged in the wake of World War I thanks to the initiative of a group of Vietnamese civil servants, landowners, and, increasingly, peasants attracted by the messianic message of the religion in a time of rapid socio-economic transformation. In 1926, Le Van Trung became leader of the Cao Dai faith. One of the prime movers of the Cao Dai faith, however, was Pham Cong Tac. A civil servant in Phnom Penh, he resigned from his post in 1928 and returned to Tay Ninh to help run the rapidly emerging Cao Dai movement with Le Van Trung. Following the death of the latter in 1935, Pham Cong Tac extended his influence and control over the movement’s disciples and organization. In 1938, he became the movement’s supreme spiritual leader and set it on an increasingly political tack.

At the outset of the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, Pham Cong Tac’s suspected links to the Japanese and perceived attempts to create an autonomous religious state and militia led the French to arrest and deport him to Madagascar in 1941. During this time, he rubbed shoulders in colonial cells there with the likes of Le Gian and Tran Hieu, the future directors of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) security and intelligence services, respectively. The British MI6 secured the release of Le Gian and Tran Hieu to work for Allied secret services against the Japanese, but Pham Cong Tac’s ties to the Japanese kept him behind bars throughout the course of the Pacific War. Meanwhile, the Cao Dai leadership in southern Indochina continued to politicize and militarize the movement in its cooperation with the Japanese.

Following the Pacific War, the Cao Dai briefly flirted with the forces of the DRV in a loosely knit anti-colonialist coalition. However, the faith’s leaders were wary of the DRV’s communist core and above all of the idea of integrating their politico-military forces into the DRV’s national fold. Determined to divide the DRV’s forces, the French saw an opportunity. They returned Pham Cong Tac from Madagascar to southern Vietnam on 22 August 1946 on the condition that he ally his disciples and their military forces with the French and their non-communist Vietnamese partners. On 8 January 1947, Pham Cong Tac signed an accord with the French along these lines and in April–May 1947, a large part of the Cao Dai forces began crossing over to the French side triggering violent clashes with the DRV’s forces. The Commander-in-Chief of the DRV’s armed forces in the south, Nguyen Binh, would not tolerate what he saw as high treason in a war of national liberation. Civil war among Vietnamese had effectively begun within the confines of the colonial conflict.

In contrast to the interwar period, the French actively militarized and politicized this religious movement in order to hold on colonially. That said, relations between the French and the Cao Dai were never smooth. Following a rocky meeting between Pham Cong Tac and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who insisted that the Cao Dai leader integrate his forces into the national army of the Associated State of Vietnam, Pham Cong Tac terminated his collaboration with the French and in March 1952 declared himself supreme commander of a Cao Dai Army. On 19 May 1954, following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Pham Cong Tac signed a protocol accepting the integration of the Cao Dai forces into the Associated State’s army. However, it was only in 1955, following violent clashes with the national army commanded by Ngo Dinh Diem, that the Cao Dai ceded most of their politico-military activities to concentrate on their religious ones.

As the third largest religion in Vietnam today, the Cao Dai faith counts two to three million members inside and outside of Vietnam. See also BINH XUYEN; CAO TRIEU PHAT; CATHOLICS IN VIETNAM AND THE WAR; HOA HAO; LE HUU TU; MINORITY ETHNIC GROUPS; PAYS MONTAGNARDS DU SUD (PMS); TRAN QUANG VINH; TRINH MINH THE; VATICAN.