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Selected Groups in the Republic of Vietnam

The Cao Dai


[Special Operations Research Office]

Ethnographic Study Series:

This is a PREPUBLICATION WORKING PAPER - an advance copy, subject to change - of a part of a larger study to be published in a single volume. Reproduction in whole or in part is permitted for any purpose of the United States Government.



The Special Operations Research Office (SORO) of The American University, operating under contract with the Department of the Army, conducts research on military problems in support of requirements stated by the Department of the Army. As another service SORO provides through the Counterinsurgency Information Analysis Center (CINFAC) rapid responses to queries from Department of Defense agencies, their contractors, and as directed, other governmental departments and agencies.

The contents of this report, including any conclusions or recommendations, reflect the work of SORO and are not to be construed as an official Department of the Army position, unless so designated by other authorized documents. This particular study was conducted in response to a request from the Directorate of Special Operations, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C. 20310.

Using agencies are encouraged to submit additional questions and/or comments which will lead to clarification or correction of errors of fact and opinion; which fill gaps of information; or which suggest other changes as may be appropriate. Comments should be addressed to:

Directorate of Special Operations
Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations
Department of the Army
Washington., D.C., 20310


Director, Special Operations Research Office
The American University
5010 Wisconsin Avenue, N. W.
Washington, D.C., 20016

Reproduction in whole or in part is permitted for any purpose of the United States Government.

CAUTION: The information in this study should be considered as a point of departure to be checked against the current circumstances or conditions of the particular area in which the user is working.






The American University 5010 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20016

SORO/CINFAC/R-0133-65 March 1966


SORO, in response to a request from the Directorate of Special Operations, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations, Department of the Army, is developing through CINFAC an ethnographic study of selected groups residing in or migrating through the Republic of Vietnam. The complete study will cover 24 groups.

The task of studying these groups is a complicated one. The country is undergoing crises of various types, in the course of which the groups are more and more coming into contact with modern civilization. It is always difficult to gauge the true depth and nature of social and cultural changes; it is particularly difficult to identify and assess those occurring because of contact with U.S. military and economic assistance programs. It does appear, however, that the groups selected for study are deeply involved in these changes. Finally, the available information is fragmentary and often biased or contradictory.

This working paper on the Cao Dai is the 23rd of a prepublication series being distributed on a limited basis. It is a descriptive report based on secondary sources dealing with the Vietnamese society. Field research was not undertaken, although the comments of consultants and personnel recently returned from Vietnam have been incorporated. The final report will contain line drawings and illustrations.

It must be recognized, then, that this paper is not an exhaustive study. There are appreciable gaps in the information, and many discrepancies in the original sources were difficult to reconcile. Further, the information contained herein may be outdated even before it is published and is subject to modification in the light of new developments and information. Therefore, although it contains the latest information available, and the validity of this material has been checked as closely as possible, the user is cautioned to consider this study as a point of departure to be checked against the current circumstances or conditions of the particular area in which he is working.

Richard H. Moore
Manager, Counterinsurgency
Information Analysis Center


Map - areas of The Cao Dai



The Cao Dai,* a militant politico-religious sect founded in 1926, expounds a syncretic religion which venerates Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tze (founder of Taoism), and Christ and is based on spiritualism and faith in one God.

Originally a purely religious organization, in the face of strong Vietnamese nationalism the Cao Dai soon acquired a political orientation and a following of over 2 million. At the beginning of World War II the sect became overtly anti-French, predicting the return of Prince Cuong De** from Japan and the termination of French rule. The French retaliated in 1940 by exiling Pham Cong Tac, the highest Cao Dai official.

The Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao**** religious sects developed into armed politico-religious groups during the chaos following World War II. The Cao Dai secured vast areas of land and developed quasi-religious fiefs, reminiscent of those of the European Middle Ages, that provided centers of relative calm and stability in the strife-ridden countryside. Although heavily taxed by the Cao Dai leaders under this feudal arrangement, the Vietnamese peasants within these domains were at least assured of physical survival as well as the spiritual guidance of the Cao Dai religious doctrine.

Early in the Indochina War (1946-1954) the Cao Dai were militarily neutral, but when it became obvious, however, that the Viet Minh were attempting to liquidate the religious sects, the Cao Dai began to support the French and signed a military convention of cooperation with the French High Command on January 8, 1947. The Cao Dai were to eliminate the Viet Minh in their zones of influence in exchange for French arms and funds to pay the organized Cao Dai armed forces. Most Cao Dai supported the French, with the exception of a small dissident group under Trinh Minh The, a fanatical nationalist who, in 1951, organized guerrilla activities against the French as well as against the Viet Minh.


* Pronounced COW DIE.
Note to the reader: the following discussion of the Cao Dai concerns the activities of the main--Tam Ky--sect; a separate section at the end of this study is devoted to the splinter sects.

** A direct descendant of Gia Long, pretender to the throne of Annam, and capable, according to some, of saving Vietnam.

*** In this study, the Hoa Hao sect will not be discussed except as it relates to the Cao Dai. A separate study in this series is devoted to the Hoa Hao.


Politically united (at least nominally) with the French, the Cao Dai sought to strengthen their position by making future nationist regimes dependent on their support. At first advocating an autonomous Cochin China Republic, the Cao Dai finally pledged to support a unified Vietnam and, on May 6, 1950, officially gave their support to Tran Van Huu, the second Premier under Emperor Bao Dai. As a nominal sign of good will, the Cao Dai allowed some of their armed forces to be integrated into the Vietnamese National Army.

The Cao Dai, however, still aspired to become the supreme power in Vietnam. In 1951, they requested the French to arm and train three full Cao Dai divisions (45,000 men); in addition, they demanded three cabinet seats in the Government. With the refusal of both demands, the Cao Dai refused to fight the Viet Minh. Benefiting from this respite, the Viet Minh attacked the Cao Dai stronghold at Tay Ninh, causing the French and Vietnamese Governments to comply, at least in part, with the Cao Dai requests for assistance.

In 1953 the Cao Dai movement followed a strictly nationalist course. On April 9, 1954, the Cao Dai Pope or Ho Phap stated that he was now "supporting without reservations" Bao Dai in the latter's "struggle for total independence for Vietnam" and "for the liberation of the Vietnamese people from the Communist yoke...."1 These promises to support the Saigon regime were tested on April 12, 1954, when the Vietnamese Government decided to integrate the armed forces of the sect into the National Army. The Cao Dai commander in chief attacked the decision, causing the postponement of the decree for more than a year.

Just prior to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Cao Dai policy changed; anti-Communist pronouncements became fewer and milder. The Cao Dai Ho Phap, attempting to act as conciliator, appealed to both Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai for moderation. But with the signing of the Geneva Agreement in 1954 and the beginning of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, Cao Dai fortunes began to decline.

The most urgent problem facing Diem was the presence in Vietnam of the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao, and the Binh Xuyen. Diem was determined either to destroy the sects or to integrate them into the political fabric of Vietnam. Torn by factionalism and internal dissension, the sects were unable to organize in their own defense. In March 1955, the sects attempted to form a coalition, the United Front of National Forces, to force Diem to step down and to gain for themselves a greater voice in the National Government. The Front soon collapsed, however, when influential members of the sects defected to Diem. Before the sects could


* Often included in discussions of the sects, the Binh Xuyen was actually a legalized group of former river pirates with no particular religious orientation. A separate study in this Ethnographic Study Series is devoted to the Binh Xuyen; this group will therefore be discussed here only where it relates to the Cao Dai.

1. Bernard B. Fall, "The Political-Religious Sects of Viet-Nam," Pacific Affairs, XXVIII, No. 3 (September 1955), p. 242.


reunite, Diem resorted to military measures and ordered the Vietnamese Army to occupy the Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh in January 1956. The Ho Phap fled to Cambodia, where he later died. From January 1956 to November 1963, the Cao Dai were politically and militarily impotent. Diem permitted Cao Daism to exist as a religion.

With the overthrow of Diem in November 1963 and the relaxation of his suppressive measures, the Cao Dai emerged once more and requested a voice in the Government. Since the coup, the successive Governments of the Republic of Vietnam have generally attempted to conciliate the Cao Dai.

The Cao Dai wield considerable power in the Republic of Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta. Estimates of their following range from 1.5 million to well over 2 million.2 The largest single group is situated in Tay Ninh, the center of the Cao Dai faith. Other influential groups inhabit the provinces of Ba Xuyen, Long An, Dinh Tuong, Kien Hoa, Phong Dinh, Vinh Long, Hau Nghia, Bien Hoa, Vinh Binh, and, in lesser numbers, all other delta provinces.

As one author has indicated, the Cao Dai - and the Hoa Hao - are unique among nationalist groups in having roots among the peasantry.3 Having risen from humble origins by their own efforts, the capable and astute sect leaders understand the peasants of their villages and are thus able to compete with the Communists for control over them.4 In addition, their former alliance with the Viet Minh gave the Cao Dai an understanding of Communist tactics; they can evaluate Communist actions and act accordingly. It must be added, however, that the sects are important targets for Communist infiltration.5


2. Roger Levy gives the figure of 1,500,000 for the Cai [sic] Dai membership in his book, Viet-Nam, Cambodge, Laos: 1954-1957 (Mémoire préparé en vue de la Conférence de Lahore, February 1958. Paris: Centre d'Études de Politique Étrangère Comité d'Études des Problèmes du Pacifique, 1957), p. 5; George L. Harris et al. use the two million estimate in U.S. Army Area Handbook for Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: Special Operations Research Office, 1964).

3. Ellen Joy Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina Continues: Geneva to Bandung (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1955), p. 24.

4. Ibid.

5. Roy Jumper, "Sects and Communism in South Vietnam," Orbis, III, No. 1 (Spring 1959), p. 90.



Cao Daism or, more formally, Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, the "Third Amnesty of God," is one of the four principal Vietnamese religions, which include Buddhism, Catholicism, and Hoa Hao. According to Cao Dai doctrine, God has already proclaimed two "Amnesties": the first in the West through Moses and Jesus, and the second in the Orient through Buddha and Lao Tze (the founder of Taoism). Whereas these previous Amnesties have assumed human form, the third has been adapted to the higher evolution of the human spirit, revealing itself through spiritualistic seances. Based on spiritualism, Cao Daism is a synthesis of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and spirit worship. Daism is considered the logical sequel to these religions, which were established in different parts of the world and, owing to lack of communication, failed to converge. The primary aim of Cao Daism is to unite all these religions. The objectives of Cao Daism are best expressed by an authority on the faith:

Cao Daism is destined to the whole Universe, because the message which it carries already is contained in every religion. The multiplicity of religions is not an obstacle to harmony if there is a subtle but nonetheless real bond which serves as point of contact. This subtle but real bond, Cao Daism, brings . . . to every unprejudiced person, in all sincerity, in all fraternity, in its message: Life, Love, Truth.1

The spirit of Cao Dai first revealed itself in 1919 to Ngo Van Chieu, the administrator for the colonial government of Cochin China of Phu Quoc Island, off the coast of Cambodia. A devotee of spiritualism and a Taoist, Chieu organized seances from time to time, with the aid of young mediums, to receive instruction on his spiritual evolution. Chieu made contact with a spirit who identified himself as Cao Dai. While others at the seance were baffled by this spirit, who had never before appeared in any religious texts, Chieu recognized Cao Dai as a surname for the Supreme Being. To worship Cao Dai in a tangible form, Chieu was instructed to represent the spirit symbolically with an eye emitting brilliant rays of light.

Later, when transferred to Saigon, Chieu continued to communicate with Cao Dai in seances held with a group of civil servants. During a seance on December 25, 1925, Cao Dai reportedly manifested himself to Chieu and his group and announced his intention "to teach the Truth to the people of Viet Nam.2 At that time, seances were the fashion in Saigon; several groups of civil servants were participating in "table-turning" spiritualistic sessions similar in principle to the use of ouija


1. Fall, op. cit., p. 237.

2. Ibid.


boards. Eventually these groups also made contact with the spirit, who advised them to use the "beaked basket"* to facilitate their correspondence with the occult world and to consult Chieu for information about the device. In this way, word of Chieu's contact with the Supreme Being spread rapidly, and he came to be regarded as the head of the Cao Dai movement.

During a later seance, the spirit directed a wealthy businessman, Le Van Trung, to join Chieu in leading the Cao Dai movement. A reputed degenerate, spendthrift, and impenitent materialist, Trung resolved from that day on to lead an exemplary life worthy of his new position.4 Sustained by his new faith, Trung abstained from opium, alcohol, meat, and fish; he became a strict vegetarian and a complete ascetic. This miraculous conversion attracted many adherents. Choosing to remain apart from a movement engaged in widespread proselytism, Chieu relinquished his leadership to Trung in April 1926.5

On October 7, 1926, 28 Cao Dai leaders and 247 adherents filed an official resolution requesting Government recognition of Cao Daism as a formal religion.

Although official recognition was not granted immediately, centers to spread the religion were established and cadres of leaders formed.6 In the following 2 months, the movement attracted over 20,000 adherents. This success was attributed to two factors: first, the spiritualistic nature of the religion held great appeal to the Vietnamese peasants who had a proclivity for the supernatural; and second, the form of the new cult was not contrary to the principal religions already practiced in the country.7

A solemn ceremony celebrating the founding of the Cao Dai faith took place November 18-20, 1926, apparently following the granting of official recognition. The celebration at Go Ken (Tay Ninh Province) was attended by thousands of adherents and curiosity seekers. During the ceremony the Cao Dai religious codes were established and promulgated.8

In March 1927, the Holy See or Holy Seat of the faith was established in the village of Long Thanh (near the town of Tay Ninh in Tay Ninh Province), and construction of a vast cathedral was begun at the foot of the sacred Ba Den (Black Lady) Mountain. Completed May 22, 1937, 9 the structure combines the architecture of a Catholic cathedral and a Buddhist temple. Above the doorway appears statuary showing Lao Tze carrying Jesus Christ on his shoulders: in turn, Christ supports Confucius and Buddha, symbolizing the eclectic nature of the Cao Dai faith. The "saintly" hierarchy or spiritual "fathers" of Cao Daism are depicted inside the cathedral: the three great saints, Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tze; Christ, ranked below these since he appeared at a later date;10 the


* Known in English as the planchette, or in French as the corbeille-à-bec. It is a bamboo basket with a wooden pointer which, under the influence of the spirits, picks out letters to communicate the wishes of the spirits.3

3. Col. Frank O. Blake, Interview, 1965 [former Foreign Broadcast Information Service Chief, Saigon].

4. Gerald Cannon Hickey, Village in Vietnam (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964), pp. 290-91.

5. Gabriel Gobron, Histoire et philosophie du Caodaisme (Paris: Dervy, 1949), p. 22.

6. Hickey, op. cit., pp. 290-91.

7. Gobron, op. cit., p. 26; Fall, op. cit., p. 238.

8. Gobron, op. cit., pp. 26-27.

9. Fall, op. cit., p. 238.

10. Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (London: Jonathan Cape, 1951), p. 41.


high category of saints, including Quang Am (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy), the Chinese warrior Quang Cong, and Moses; the general rank of saints, including all those of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism; and finally Sun Yat Sen, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, St. Bernard, St. John the Baptist, and the French admiral Duclos.11

Four traditionally sacred animals - the dragon, unicorn, tortoise, and phoenix - also appear in the cathedral statuary while numerous pink dragons are entwined around the pillars beneath the "eye of Cao Dai."12

This iconographic admixture is ordered architecturally according to particular laws. The cathedral is divided into three distinct parts or Dai, symbolizing the notion of the Trinity and representing the Body, the Soul, and the Spirit. The "Dai of the Nine Spires of Evolution," used for public services and ceremonies, corresponds to the nine degrees of the hierarchy, at whose summit reigns the Saint and the Very High Emperor of the Palace of Jade, represented by the Divine Eye. The second Dai, the "Dai of the Divine Alliance, consecrated to the spirit," is the part of the cathedral used by the high priests of the religion for communing with the spirits through the mediums who use the beaked basket.13 The use of the third Dai, the "Dai of the Eight Cycles of Genesis," was not clear from the information available at this writing.

By 1930 the Tam Ky Pho Do (as the Tay Ninh branch of the Cao Dai sect was officially known) was a strong religious organization patterned after the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including a pope, cardinals, bishops, and monks. In addition, a hierarchy of female ecclesiastical dignitaries emerged.14

The feudal nature of the sect was emphasized at this time by the establishment of a temporal administrative division within the religious hierarchy. The central organization of the Cao Dai includes three main administrative branches charged with executing quasi-governmental functions. The first, the Cuu Trung Dai, has executive powers and directs the temporal administration and armed forces of the sect. The Cuu Trung Dai functions with the aid of nine ministries (vien): interior (lai), rites (le), security (hoa), finance (ho), supply (luong), education (hoc), agriculture (nong), public works (cong), and health (y). The Giao Tong or Pope controls this organization. Not a living person, the Giao Tong is the sanctified spirit of the Vietnamese philosopher-saint, Ly Thai Bach. Even Le Van Trung (the first great Cao Dai leader) served in the capacity of Quyen Giao Tong or Interim Pope.

The second branch is the Hiep Thien Dai, or Legislative Body, which controls the Cao Dai religious affairs. The highest ranking "living" member of the sect or Ho Phap (Superior) - usually referred to as the living Pope or simply Pope - heads this organization and controls the manipulations of the beaked basket. With two assistants, he presides over a council of 12 members called the Thap-Hni Thoi-quan, which governs a hierarchy of prelates and lower clergy. In the mid-1950's the principal instrument of the Ho Phap's power was a secret society - Pham Mon - of several thousand adherents tied by a fanatical oath of blood. The


11. Hickey, op. cit., p. 291.

12. Maj. A. M. Savani, Visage et images du sud Viet-Nam (Saigon: Imprimerie Française d'Outre Mer, 1955), pp. 89-90.

13. Ibid.

14. Hickey, op. cit., p. 292.


Pham Mon may still exist, but recent information concerning it was not available at this time. When Pham Cong Tac was the Ho Phap, that office became influential enough to seriously threaten Trung's authority.

The third branch, the Co Quan Phuoc Thien or Charity Corps, is a welfare agency responsible for administering to the poor and invalid among the Cao Dai. This branch was originally established to assure, by eliciting donations, the financial support of the sect. This branch may still function in this capacity.

Beneath these three principal branches are a number of smaller organizational subdivisions, such as the High Assembly, the Grand Council, the Grand Assembly, the Tribunal of Three Religions, and the Tribunal of the Adept. Like that of a modern state, the administrative structure of the sect extends down to the smallest Cao Dai hamlet through provincial units entrusted with both spiritual and temporal powers. The deliberate complexity of the Cao Dai organizational structure is, according to one source, a means of capturing the imagination of the faithful, thus permitting Cao Dai control of much territory.15

In November 1934, Le Van Trung died; an election of the Council of the Faithful and of the Sacerdotal Council named his succesor, Pham Cong Tac, the highest ranking living member of the Cao Dai.* Complaints of fraud came from 11 rival religious sects who had split off from the Tam Ky sect as a result of internal dissension.** 16 Tac extended the influence of the Tam Ky sect both economically and socially, and steered the Cao Dai away from its primarily religious character into clearly politico-nationalistic channels.17

Because the French Administration offered no means through which popular discontent could be converted into constructive political activity, nationalist groups critical of French rule began to operate clandestinely for a free Vietnam.18 By 1934 the Cao Dai had entered into secret relations with the Japanese; they favored the return of Prince Cuong De (a direct descendant of Gia Long, pretender to the throne of Annam) from Japan, and expected Japanese aid for the liberation of Vietnam.19 Numbering over 300,000 in 1934, the Cao Dai controlled 128 chapels and were particularly strong in My Tho, Cholon, Gia Dinh, and Ben Tre.20


* Since the death of Trung, no one has been chosen to fill the position of "Interim Pope." The highest office held by a living person has been that of Ho Phap.

** See "Splinter Sects," pp. 21-23.

15. Savani, op. cit., p. 89.

16. Fall, op. cit., pp. 238-39; Harris et al., op. cit., p. 134.

17. Ellen Joy Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954), p. 51; Le Thanh Khoi, Le Viet-Nam: Histoire et civilisation (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1955), p. 449.

18. Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, op. cit., p. 79.

19. Joseph Buttinger, The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), p. 437.

20. Savani, op. cit., p. 88.



With the beginning of the war in Europe, the Cao Dai stepped up its anti-French propaganda, under the guise of aggressive nationalism. The manipulation of the beaked basket and the diffusion of messages among the faithful were instrumental to this policy. The Armistice of June 1940, marking the fall of France to Germany, provided the Cao Dai with the necessary excuse to strengthen their position; but their activity provoked the French authorities into taking strong measures to prevent the formation of a state within a state.

In August 1940, the French governor of Cochin China sought to close the cathedral at Tay Ninh, most of the chapels throughout the countryside, and all the houses of charity (Phuoc Thien) that had been converted to political organizations. Despite French reprisals, Pham Cong Tac continued to deliver "divine" messages to sustain Cao Dai nationalist agitation. Consequently, on August 21, 1941, Tac and his principal collaborators were exiled to Madagascar, where they were to remain until the end of the war. The deportation of their leader, together with the occupation of Tay Ninh by French troops on September 27, 1941, caused the Cao Dai to seek Japanese support.1

In 1943 the directing committee of the Cao Dai, protected by the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police), was reorganized under the auspices of Tran Quang Vinh, who prepared the faithful for direct action against the French. Whereas formerly Cao Dai anti-French activity had been restricted to propaganda activities, Vinh succeeded in forming clandestine paramilitary groups estimated to number 3,000 men. These Cao Dai forces, armed by the Japanese, fought the French throughout World War II and participated in the Japanese take over in Indochina in March 1945.2 By 1945, the leaders of the Cao Dai were openly supporting the Japanese regime and assisting them in policing the countryside.3

On August 14, 1945, after the capitulation of the Japanese, the Cao Dai joined with other nationalist groups (the Vietnamese Independence Party, the Group of Intellectuals, the Civil Servants' Union, the Trotskyite group, the Advance Guard of Youth, and the Hoa Hao) to form the United National Front to take over administrative functions from the Japanese. Plagued with factionalism and irresolution, the Front proved incapable of assuming effective control.

Meanwhile, through the Advance Guard of Youth, infiltrated by Communist elements, the Viet Minh representative Tran Van Giau attempted to seize control of the Front. Failing to achieve this through intimidation, Giau resorted to bluff and persuasion: the Viet Minh launched an intensive propaganda campaign, posing as a strong resistance movement with widespread support. Maintaining this posture, Giau met with the United National Front to urge them to accept Viet Minh leadership in their


1. Savani, op. cit., p. 90.

2. Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, op. cit., p. 107.

3. Ibid., p. 52; Savani, op. cit., p. 91.


fight for unity and independence. The Front accepted Giau's offer of leadership; to celebrate the new alliance, it sponsored an independence demonstration in the form of a march in which almost all organized groups in Cochin China participated.* On the same day, the Viet Minh established the Nam Bo, or provisional Executive Committee for South Vietnam, which was composed of nine members, six of whom were Communists.4

Serious divisions soon developed in the nationalist movement. Internal rivalries, as well as open warfare over the issue of cooperation with the occupying forces, resulted in failure to present a unified front to the British when they reached Saigon in September 1945. Profiting from the split in the ranks of the revolutionaries, the French, with British support, reoccupied Saigon; certain Cochin Chinese provinces, however, were left open to Cao Dai and Hoa Hao seizure.5

Meanwhile, the already uneasy alliance between the Cao Dai and Viet Minh was strained to the breaking point. Giau's attempt to seize control of the Cao Dai militia aroused Tran Quang Vinh's suspicions. To safeguard the autonomy of the sect, Vinh, as coordinator of the Cao Dai's activities, refused to turn his forces over to Giau. For this opposition, the Viet Minh detained Vinh and initiated military action against the Cao Dai.6 In Vinh's absence the sect's militia was organized by Nguyen Van Thanh, Nguyen Thanh Phuong, and Duong Van Dang. Deprived of Vinh's guidance and encouraged by decreasing Viet Minh demands for control over the Cao Dai militia, these three leaders decided to join - on an equal basis - the Viet Minh in their fight against the French. Thus, until June 1946, Cao Dai troops fought with the Viet Minh against the French Expeditionary Corps.7

In November 1945, Cao Dai followers in Tay Ninh surrendered to a French armed column which had marched on the city. After his escape from the Viet Minh, Tran Quang Vinh realized the futility of collaboration with the Viet Minh; acting as the commander of the Cao Dai militia, Vinh negotiated a truce with French authorities in June 1946. Phuong brought his Cao Dai militia, about 1,000 strong, to Tay Ninh to be reviewed by Vinh and a representative of the French command. Although Thanh and Dang, the other two military leaders, refused to participate in this ceremony and sought refuge on Ba Den Mountain, the French permitted Pham Cong Tac to return from exile. At a convention in August, Tac made political peace with the French, proclaiming the need for the presence of the French in Indochina and expressing confidence in their ability to reestablish order and public security.8


* The Trotskyites, distrusting Giau's intentions, were the only group that refused to participate.

4. Donald Lancaster, The Emancipation of French Indochina (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 118.

5. Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff, The Left Wing in Southeast Asia (published under auspices of the International Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations). (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950), p. 31.

6. Savani, op. cit., pp. 90-91; Lancaster, op. cit., p. 137; Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, op. cit., pp. 109-10.

7. Savani, op. cit., pp. 91-92.

8. Fall, op. cit., p. 240; Lancaster, op. cit., p. 182; Savani, op. cit., p. 92.



Despite their pledge to support the French, the Cao Dai, under the skilled political maneuvering of Tac, remained neutral when fighting broke out between the French and the Viet Minh in early December 1946. But when the Communists attacked Tay Ninh* in January 1947 the Cao Dai sought French protection.

The Ho Phap ratified Tran Quang Vinh's initial accord with the French, in which the sect received authorization to maintain a limited militia force of 1,470 partisans, including 12 voluntary brigades of 60 men each and garrison troops in 16 defense posts throughout Tay Ninh Province.1 The Holy See soon circumvented these restrictions by creating new formations, such as the "Papal Guard," a "Battalion of Honor," a "Shock Battalion," and numerous unofficial units for the defense of scattered Cao Dai communities.

In return for French military aid, the Cao Dai agreed to cooperate in pacifying the Vietnamese countryside. Most of the Cao Dai troops of the Tam Ky sect honored this pledge, with the exception of Trinh Minh The,** the fanatical nationalist who, in 1951, organized his own guerrilla forces as "loyal opposition" to the Ho Phap. For a year the Cao Dai inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh, suffering almost a thousand casualties in the process.2

In March 1949, after 2 years of negotiations, the French finally granted Vietnam self-government within the French Union. The Cao Dai pledged allegiance to a unified Vietnam and promised to support Emperor Bao Dai. The integration of a Cao Dai battalion into the Vietnamese National Army symbolized the alleged good will of the sect. Meanwhile, despite an earlier truce, the Cao Dai resumed their private war with the Hoa Hao,*** considerably weakening the nationalist movement.3


* Realizing the power potential of the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao sects, the Viet Minh sought at this time to eliminate them by force. The Hoa Hao, likewise threatened by the Viet Minh, also reacted by joining the French.

** From his hideout near Tay Ninh, The established a clandestine broadcasting station, "Voice of National Vietnam," which, under the name Quan-Doi Quoc Gia Lien-Minh ("Inter-Allied National Forces"), attacked the Bao Dai regime as well as the Viet Minh and the French.

*** This was essentially a feudal conflict; much of the distrust between the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao stemmed from mutual fears of encroachment upon their quasi-religious feudal fiefs.

1. Lancaster, op. cit., p. 82; Savani, op. cit., p. 92.

2. Savani, op. cit., p. 93.

3. Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina, op. cit., p. 211; Fall, op. cit., p. 240.


Methodically pursuing his aim to assure the Cao Dai a dominant place in all aspects of Vietnamese life, the Ho Phap asked the French to arm and train three full Cao Dai divisions (45,000 men), and to grant the Cao Dai three cabinet seats. Upon refusal of these demands the Cao Dai general Nguyen Van Thanh issued a secret order to cease all offensive action - except legitimate self-defense - against the Viet Minh. Benefiting from Cao Dai passivity, the Viet Minh attacked Tay Ninh, inflicting serious losses. Thanh reversed his policy and ordered retaliatory raids on Communist strongholds. The French and Vietnamese Governments, owing to the worsening situation, were forced to give in, at least in part, to Cao Dai demands: they armed additional Cao Dai troops and granted high cabinet posts to some of the sect's dignitaries.4

This system of alternating support and opposition as a means of extracting favors was indicative of the opportunism characteristic of French-Cao Dai relations. Menaced by nationalism on the one hand and communism on the other, the French tolerated the religious sects not only because they were anti-Communist, and therefore capable of splitting the nationalist movement, but also because they controlled vast territories, which released French troops for combat in areas not under Cao Dai or Hoa Hao hegemony. In the absence of normal governmental authorities, and in exchange for their support of Emperor Bao Dai, the sects were free to carve out larger and larger zones of influence.5 Together, the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen held sway over most of Cochin China in virtually feudal fashion. The Cao Dai had their own militia - 15,000 to 20,000 men - and system of tax collection.6

The sects were not totally unsupervised, however. A French staff section, the Inspectorat Général des Forces Supplétives, coordinated the military activities of the sects. French liaison officers and training staffs were garrisoned with all major Cao Dai and Hoa Hao units. Throughout the war, French and Vietnamese officers taught promising Cao Dai cadres the rudiments of modern warfare in a 5-month course offered in the sect's own officers' training school. Yet the actual military value of the Cao Dai in the counterinsurgency effort is debatable. The military units, primarily concerned with enlarging Cao Dai holdings, were considered too valuable to lose in military operations. For this reason the Cao Dai were reluctant to risk an all-out fight with the Viet Minh and seldom deployed their troops except in their own areas.7

In 1953 Pham Cong Tac, sensing changes in the political climate of the country, again guided the Cao Dai movement in the direction of Vietnamese nationalism. During August 1953, the Cao Dai leaders seemed prepared to assume the leadership of the country when Premier Nguyen Van Tam's government appeared to be weakening. The "apostolic" representative of the Ho Phap in France even suggested that "...Tay Ninh would offer a solid base for conversations in view of the fact that millions of signatures could back up the signature of the 'Pope' Pham Cong Tac" in final independence agreements between Vietnam and France.8 In September and October the Ho Phap's political activities further


4. Fall, op. cit., pp. 240-41; Savani, op. cit., p. 94.

5. Robert G. Scigliano, South Vietnam: Nation Under Stress (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 19; Hammer, Struggle for Indochina, op. cit., p. 273.

6. Hammer, Struggle for Indochina, op. cit., p. 285.

7. Fall, op. cit., p. 241.

8. Ibid., pp. 241-42.


increased, while Bao Dai's efforts to gather a majority of all nationalist groups to negotiate a "final" Vietnamese independence treaty with France continued. In a Saigon press conference, the Ho Phap called for national unity by praising both Bao Dai and Ho Chi Minh and advocating both independence and a close association with France.9

At the Nationalist Congress of October 1953, called by Bao Dai to demand full independence, the Cao Dai assumed considerable importance: the Ho Phap, as one of the organizers, read a statement to the press, giving the political aim of the Congress; out of 203 seats alloted for groups at the Congress, members of the Cao Dai held 17, the largest number reserved for any of the sects. When Bao Dai failed to gain full nationalist support in the Congress, he invited individual nationalist leaders to see him; among these were Cao Dai General Phuong and the Ho Phap. On April 9, 1954, the Ho Phap declared that he was giving unquestioned support to Bao Dai in his "struggle for total independence for Viet Nam" and "for the liberation of the Vietnamese people from the Communist yoke. . . . "10 Three days later the value of these promises was measured when the Saigon Government decided to integrate the armed forces of the sects into the Vietnamese National Army. The commander in chief of the Cao Dai army, Nguyen Thanh Phuong, reacted by circulating a letter to his subordinates denouncing the decision. As a result, the integration decree was not complied with for more than a year.11

Because of the deteriorating military situation at Dien Bien Phu, the Ho Phap, sensing a possible Viet Minh victory, once more altered the course of the Cao Dai movement, playing down all anti-Communist propaganda and appealing to both sides for moderation. In an open letter to Ho Chi Minh, the Ho Phap, who had taken upon himself the role of conciliator, stated: "You and His Majesty, Bao Dai, have succeeded in liberating the country. The Vietnamese people are grateful to both of you. However, there remains a problem to be settled: reconciliation between the Nationalists and the Communists."12 Indeed, the Ho Phap deserved his role as conciliator, for the sects, numbering over 2 million followers (the Cao Dai being the largest), were a force not to be disregarded.13 Now at their peak of glory, the sects represented the only political groups with substantial followings.

However, with the signing of the Geneva Agreement and the subsequent loss of French financial support, political influence of the Cao Dai began to wane. The appointment of Ngo Dinh Diem as Premier of the Republic of Vietnam heralded the end, at least temporarily, of Cao Dai influence in Vietnamese politics.


9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 242.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 243.

13. Harris et al., op. cit., p. 128.



Among the serious issues confronting Diem at the outset of his regime was the problem of the sects - the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao, and the Binh Xuyen - who were seeking to preserve their semiautonomous status against the pressures of the Central Government and of each other. Realizing that the authority of the sects would diminish his own, Diem decided to take actions which would either integrate the sects into the Vietnamese political fabric or result in their destruction. Diem's plans consisted of "integrating the self-commanded sectarian armies into the National Army, eliminating the autonomous administrations in the sectarial areas, and rallying the dissident sect leaders."1

To implement his plans, Diem needed a strong National Army.* At the time, the commander of the National Army was Chief of Staff Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh, whose loyalty as a nationalist leader was suspect because he was a French citizen. Believing that Hinh was plotting against him, Diem ordered the general's resignation on September 11, 1954, touching off a 7-week army crisis. Hinh refused to step down; instead he took refuge in his headquarters, barricaded with tanks. Diem, fearing a coup d'etat, retreated to his palace, where he was guarded by armed police under Binh Xuyen control. Five days later Binh Xuyen Gen. Le Van Vien transferred his allegiance to Hinh, joining the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, who feared that a "strong unified army linked with Diem would make their position untenable."2 When nine of his ministers resigned, Diem persuaded four Cao Daists and four Hoa Hao to accept seats in a new cabinet including, among others, Nguyen Thanh Phuong, commander of the Cao Dai armed forces. With this cabinet, Diem hoped to broaden his base of political support and strengthen his hand in dealing with General Hinh. When Hinh still refused to resign, Emperor Bao Dai (prompted by Diem and the United States) relieved Hinh of his office on November 29, 1954. Diem had succeeded in his first step to win control of the National Army, but the loyalty of the sects was not yet assured. Indeed, more problems concerning the status of the sects were soon to follow.

Throughout the Indochina War, the French had armed and subsidized the sectarian armies as auxiliary forces against the Viet Minh.3 By January 1, 1955, the French had withdrawn their support of the sects, and Diem controlled the U.S. subsidies previously allotted to the sects (channeled through the French).4 The sects were now threatened with the loss of their quasi-feudal autonomy and privileges, and with incorporation of


* From its creation in 1948 until the end of the Indochina War, the National Army, whose high officers were mainly French, had been subordinate to the French Union High Command.

1. Brian Crozier, "The Diem Regime in Southern Vietnam," Far Eastern Survey, XXIV, No. 4 (April 1955), p. 49.

2. Jumper, op. cit., p. 87.

3. Crozier, op. cit., pp. 51-52.

4. Fall, op. cit., p. 251; Jumper, op. cit., p. 88.


their troops into the National Army. Only one course of action lay open to them - the promotion of a government more sympathetic to their problems.5

A complicating factor, however, was the existence of dissidents from the main bodies of the sectarian armies, such as Cao Dai Gen Trinh Minh The and Col. Ba Cut, the rebel Hoa Hao. Although formally united with the National Army in 1952, The had remained, for all practical purposes, independent. In 1955, following the example of Hoa Hao dissidents, The pledged to cooperate with Diem. On February 13, 1955, newly promoted to the rank of General in the Vietnamese Army, The entered Saigon at the head of his 5,000 black-garbed troops.6

Meanwhile the southwestern Vietnamese countryside had drifted into a state of anarchy. The withdrawal of the Viet Minh from such areas as the Plaine des Joncs and the Transbassac had left these territories without any administrative authority or organization. Seeking to expand their domains, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai armed bands fought for control of the land. Intending to return to Saigon as Premier, Bao Dai watched these events from France and feared that sectarian rivalries would prevent the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao from resisting Diem's demand for their surrender.7 In February 1955, Bao Dai sent his cousin, Prince Vinh Canh, to Saigon to urge the sects to unify.

On Canh's advice, the sects and the Binh Xuyen signed a nonaggression pact and on March 5, 1955, they formed a "United Front of National Forces" designed to "protect the country and serve the people." As president of this anti-Government coalition, Pham Cong Tac demanded a strong democratic government composed of honest men and extensive power for the sects. The coalition leadership sent emissaries to France to ask Bao Dai to dismiss Diem as Prime Minister and to return to Vietnam himself. Bao Dai, however, reaffirmed his official support of Diem after receiving assurance of U.S. confidence in the Prime Minister. At the same time, Bao Dai congratulated the sects on their unification.8 Before receiving Bao Dai's answer, the sect leaders (the Ho Phap and General Phuong for the Cao Dai, Tran Van Soai and Ba Cut for the Hoa Hao, Le Van Vien for the Binh Xuyen, and Trinh Minh The* on behalf of his dissident Cao Dai) sent an ultimatum to Diem on March 21, 1955, allowing him 5 days to form a government of national union.9

Diem refused to yield to the ultimatum, but invited the sect leaders to discuss their grievances with him. When the ultimatum expired, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao cabinet members resigned from Diem's government. A second proposal was made on the 26th of March, this time for the transfer of executive power from Diem to a five-man council, in which Diem was to be merely a member.10 Despite his rejection of the plan, Diem was saved from immediate hostilities by the factionalism


* The changed his position from cooperation with Diem to support of the Front and (after a sizeable bribe) back to Diem.

5. "Diem Tackles the Sects," The Economist, CLXXV, 5824 (April 9, 1955), p. 131.

6. Lancaster, op. cit., pp. 380-81; Crozier, op. cit., p. 52.

7. Lancaster, op. cit., p. 382.

8. Lancaster, op. cit., pp. 383-84; Crozier, op. cit., p. 53.

9. Fall, op. cit., p. 251; Crozier, op. cit., p. 53.

10. Lancaster, op. cit., p. 385; Fall, op. cit., p. 252.


among members of the United Front.11 Sensing a change in the political atmosphere, the Cao Dai, followed by smaller Hoa Hao sects, retired from the impending conflict on March 29, leaving only the Binh Xuyen to confront the National Army. Fighting between these two groups broke out the night of March 29-30 and resulted in numerous casualties. The following day, Cao Dai Gen. Nguyen Thanh Phuong, with his 20,000 troops, defected to the Prime Minister, after reportedly receiving a bribe from Diem of $3.6 million plus monthly payments for his troops.12 Significantly, the Cao Dai Ho Phap did not join Phuong in transferring his loyalty to Diem. By April 2, it was evident that the Ho Phap wanted to remain a member of the opposition front; the principal effect of the army transfer was to obligate the Government to pay the troops.13 The outbreak of fighting between the Binh Xuyen and the National Army prompted Bao Dai, with French approval, to summon the "principal representatives of Vietnamese opinions" to France and to nominate Gen. Nguyen Van Vi as commander in chief of the Vietnamese National Armed Forces, a position hitherto occupied by Diem. Meanwhile the U.S. Government continued to support Diem.

To create the appearance of popular support for himself, Diem arranged a meeting - allegedly to constitute a general assembly of the "democratic revolutionary forces of the nation" - and a Revolutionary Committee was elected. The Committee, which included the expensively bought Phuong and The, persuaded the assembly to repudiate Bao Dai, to dismiss his Government, and to form a national government under Diem, who would then obtain the withdrawal of the French Expeditionary Corps and organize elections to a national assembly. The Revolutionary Committee, specifically Phuong and The, arrested the generals Nguyen Van Vi and Le Van Ty and forced them publicly to repudiate Bao Dai and to support the committee. Vi later confirmed that this announcement had been made under duress and that he could count on the support of 90 percent of the army. On the same day, Ty defected to Diem.

With Vi's power shattered, the National Army initiated military action against the Binh Xuyen and Hoa Hao. Cao Dai autonomy was suppressed without bloodshed by General Phuong, who, on October 5-6, disarmed 300 troops belonging to the "Papal Guard" and deposed the Ho Phap. The following February (1956), when Government troops were preparing to occupy the Holy See, Pham Cong Tac* fled to Phnom Penh.14 Thus, by the end of 1955, Diem had succeeded in breaking the political and military power of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen. Nevertheless, the religious fervor of the Cao Dai was not dampened, for Diem allowed the faithful to continue practicing Cao Daism.

By 1960, Diem had bolstered Vietnam's economy considerably, but his regime had become increasingly authoritarian and repressive. Until the abortive coup d'etat in November 1960, a number of demands had


* Tac died in Cambodia in 1959.

11. "Diem Tackles the Sects," op. cit., p. 130.

12. Bernard B. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963), pp. 245-46.

13. Robert Alden, "Sect Head Bars Vietnam Fealty," The New York Times, April 2, 1955, p. 2. col. 5.

14. Lancaster, op. cit., pp. 390-97.


been made for the liberalization of the regime. Among these was a manifesto in the form of a petition issued by the non-Communist Committee for Liberty and Progress (Khoi Tu-Do Tien-Bo).15 This bloc, also known as the Caravelle Group, comprised 18 politicians and professional men formerly identified with the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Greater Vietnam (Dai-Viet) Party, the Vietnamese People's Party, and dissident Catholic groups.16 The manifesto, signed by Dr. Phan Huy Quat (a Dai Viet leader), "condemned the undemocratic elections of 1959, the continuing arrests and the suppression of the freedom of the press and of public opinion," and demanded reform of the administration.17 Diem replied with vague promises of liberalization. In July, the Committee issued two further petitions and vainly demanded official recognition as a political party. With only a few exceptions, the members of the Committee did not participate in the abortive coup of November 1960.18

Although an ex-Cao Dai, Gen. Nguyen Thanh Phuong, appeared on Slate 2 as the vice-presidential candidate in the 1961 presidential elections,19 and press accounts in 1962 occasionally referred to the surrender or capture of Cao Dai members operating with Communist guerrillas,20 by and large, between 1955 and 1963, Cao Dai political and military activity was reduced to a minimum. However, with the overthrow of Diem in November 1963, and the relaxation of suppressive measures,* the Cao Dai once more began to demand a voice in the Government.


* Under Diem, on May 24, 1962, a "Law for Protection of Morality" had been passed which outlawed "spiritism and occultism"; this was interpreted as a direct stab at the highly spiritualist and occultist Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects.21

15. Joseph J. Zasloff, "Rural Resettlement in South Viet-Nam: The Agroville Program," Pacific Affairs, XXV, No. 4 (Winter 1962-1963), p. 337.

16. Robert G. Scigliano, "Political Parties in South Vietnam Under the Republic," Pacific Affairs, XXXIII, No. 4 (December 1960), pp. 340-41; "A New Look at Vietnam," Far Eastern Economic Review, XXXV, No. 2 (January 11, 1962), p. 49.

17. Wesley R. Fishel, "Problems of Democratic Growth in Free Vietnam," in Fishel (ed.), Problems of Freedom: South Vietnam Since Independence (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961), p. 28; "A New Look at Vietnam," op. cit., p. 49.

18. Ibid.

19. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, op. cit., p. 276.

20. Harris et al., op. cit., p. 326.

21. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, op. cit., pp. 266-67.



A press account of January 23, 1964, indicates that the Cao Dai armed forces supported the military junta, led by Maj. Gen. Duong Van Minh, which deposed President Diem. Several senior officers, according to the report, urged their Cao Dai followers to unite in fighting the Communist guerrillas.1

When Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khanh overthrew Minh in a bloodless coup a week later, several members of the Cao Dai sect became ministers in the new cabinet. As Premier, Khanh also released several influential members of the Cao Dai who had been imprisoned during the Diem regime.2 The new Premier showed a further desire to conciliate the Cao Dai by visiting Tay Ninh, accompanied by Gen. Paul D. Harkins and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, the top United States officials in the Republic of Vietnam. On this occasion, Khanh addressed a crowd of about a thousand, including Cao Dai civil servants and students, and denounced the Communists and colonialists. In addition, Khanh named former Brig. Gen. Le Van Tat of the Cao Dai forces as chief of Tay Ninh Province, gave the Cao Dai church the use of the Long Hao market at a nominal rental fee, and gave Le Van Tat $3,000 as a gift to the people of two districts who had been victims of Communist terrorism. Khanh also granted the Cao Dai followers permanent ownership of all their land-holdings.3

Premier Phan Huy Quat, who assumed power in January 1965, also favored a policy of conciliation with the sects. Under Quat, a 20-member civilian legislative body, called the National Legislative Council, was appointed and included two Cao Dai members. In addition, a member of the Cao Dai sect was named to Quat's 20-member Cabinet.4

On March 17, dissident members of the Cao Dai called a press conference to promote the establishment of an organization for peaceful co-existence with the Communists, a reduction in the United States role in the Republic of Vietnam, and the organization of a United Nations police force to control the Communist guerrillas in the country. Saigon police, posing as cameramen to gain entrance to the press conference, broke up the meeting.5 The following day the Minister of State announced in the Vietnamese press that the aforementioned group had not been acting on behalf of the Cao Dai sect and that their opinion did not reflect its true views. Within a few months, however, the Cao Dai (and Hoa Hao) were charging Quat with persecution and neutralist proclivities.

Since the overthrow of Diem, the Cao Dai have once more emerged as a political force, but the sect still appears to be debilitated by factionalism and lack of unity of purpose.


1. Reuters Press Release, The New York Times, January 23, 1964, p. 12, col. 5.

2. P. H. M. Jones, "Khanh in Command," Far Eastern Economic Review, XLIV, No. 5 (April 30, 1964), pp. 239-40.

3. Ibid., p. 241; "Khanh Seeks To Rally Sect," The New York Times, February 26, 1964.

4. Jack Langguth, "Saigon Installs Cabinet Designed To End Disunity," The New York Times, February 17, 1965, p. 1, col. 8.

5. Jack Langguth, "Saigon Breaks Up Meeting on Peace," The New York Times, March 18, 1965, p. 5, col. 3.



Origins of Cao Dai Doctrine

Cao Dai is the symbolic name for the Supreme Being who has revealed himself in the Orient for the third time. According to Cao Dai precepts, God has adapted his teaching to the refined nature of the human spirit by choosing mediums as vehicles of expression, rather than by granting to any mortal the privilege of founding Cao Daism. God has chosen this form of communication because all religions submitted to the authority of a human founder have not been universal; the prophets always show themselves intolerant of the truths already proclaimed by other religions.

According to Cao Dai, all parts of the world have been explored: humanity now aspires to a real peace; but due to the multiplicity of religions, men do not always live in harmony with one another. For this reason, the Supreme Being chose to unite all religions in one.

In a spiritual message of January 13, 1927, Ly Thai Bach, one of God's ministers and an early Cao Dai leader, issued the following message:

. . . Unite, love one another, mutually help each other; it is divine law. In this moment when everyone is condemned to purgatory, if one thinks only of one's personal interests, if one seeks to sow misery and suffering everywhere, one risks being enticed into this infernal torrent. . . .

Fundamental Principles of Cao Dai

Cao Dai doctrine seeks to reconcile all religious convictions as well as to adapt to all degrees of spiritual evolution:

  1. Morally, Cao Dai doctrine reminds man of his duties toward himself, his family, society, humanity, and the universal family.
  2. Philosophically, it preaches contempt of honors, riches, and luxury, and the role of servitude in the quest for tranquility of spirit.


* All the material in this section is directly translated from Gabriel Gobron, Histoire et philosophie du Caodaisme (Paris: Dervy, 1949), pp. 38-47.


  1. Culturally, it advocates adoration of God and veneration of the higher spirits who constitute the august hierarchy of the occult. Although the Vietnamese national cult of the ancestors is permitted, carnal offerings as well as the use of votive papers are condemned.
  2. Spiritually, it confirms the existence of a soul whose successive reincarnations, as well as the posthumous consequences of its human actions, are regulated by the Law of Karma.

There are three types of Cao Dai adherents and three types of rules governing their behavior:

  1. The religious practitioners, the high dignitaries, are compelled to lead a life of privation, if not of asceticism: sexual relations are prohibited; alcohol, meat, and fish are taboo, a strict vegetarianism being recommended. These believers have the authority to communicate with God and the higher spirits, but must do so only on exceptional occasions.
  2. Mediums, auxiliaries to the dignitaries, are not monks or nuns themselves, but are obliged to observe certain material privations. They are forbidden to practice spiritism except in the presence of dignitaries, after the latter have recited certain prayers.
  3. Of the ordinary followers, the mass of believers, little is required except that they follow the duties and moral teachings laid down by the Cao Dai executive body and that they prostrate themselves regularly every day before the Cao Dai altar, whether in a temple or at home. On the altar must be a drawing of an eye encircled by clouds, ritual candlesticks, and offerings of fruit, flowers, tea, and incense.

The Cult of Cao Dai

The Cao Dai cult demands only that its followers address daily prayers to the Supreme Being at 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m., and midnight. Neither confessions nor communications are required - spiritual evocations, being of a delicate and dangerous nature, are reserved for the priestly hierarchy. Cao Dai rituals commence with the offering of incense (niem huong); then follow the prayers (khai kinh), the canticle to the glory of God (recited in unison), and three more canticles in honor of the three saints - Confucius, Lao Tze, and Buddha. From time to time, the priests exhort the faithful to practice a virtuous existence, as conceived by Confucius, and to venerate the spirits who have benefited mankind at various times - Christ, Buddha, Confucius, and ancient Chinese


deities. On holidays, including Christmas and the traditional Buddhist fetes, more elaborate ceremonies take place.

Cao Daism preaches universal love, which is manifested in human fraternity, kindness to animals (our less evolved brothers), kindness toward plants (which provide us with shade and medicines), and service to one's brother. The Cao Daist must be ready to assist, through words and action, anyone in need of help; by helping others, the Cao Dai will assure his own salvation, and by leading an exemplary life, he will win the glory of God.

Cao Daism provides Five Interdicts to be observed by its followers:

  1. Do not kill living beings - because of the life, the center of consciousness, which resides within them.
  2. Do not be covetous - in order to avoid falling into materialism through the need for possessions and domination.
  3. Do not eat meat or drink alcohol.
  4. Do not be tempted by the sensual.
  5. Do not lie - verbal sins are as punishable as accomplished crimes.



The period of Cao Dai expansion was also a period of dissension. Differences arose over questions of power and the Ho Phap's right to form an army. As individual leaders acquired a following, they began to split off from the main Tam Ky Pho Do sect located in Tay Ninh; 11 splinter sects emerged, of which 8 survived.

Chieu Minh Danh

The first Cao Dai leader to form a new sect was the founder of Cao Daism, Ngo Van Chieu, who established the Chieu Minh Danh sect at Can Tho in 1928. In mid-1965, this group was led by Vo Van Ngan.

Minh Chon Ly

The Minh Chon Ly sect was founded in 1931, when a member of the Tam Ky hierarchy, Nguyen Hao Ca, was directed by the spirits to leave Tay Ninh and to organize his own sect at Rach Gia. Upon reaching Rach Gia, Ca received another spiritual message directing him to My Tho, where he established the Holy See for his sect. Between 1932 and 1938, the sect expanded rapidly, differing in doctrine from the other Cao Dai sects. At first the Minh Chon Ly pantheon of deities included Tam Tran, the Three Deities, Quang Cong, and Ly Thai Bach or the Supreme Spirit; however, it was eventually enlarged to include Thich Ca (a reincarnation of Buddha), Christ, Lao Tze, Confucius, and Ngoc Hoang Thuong De (the Emperor of Jade). Dissatisfied with the original symbol of Cao Dai - the eye emitting nine rays of light - Ca adopted a new symbol, the "Eye In the Heart," an eye set in a red heart from which rays of light emanate. According to Ca, the eye merely records, but the heart has full realization or true knowledge.

The Minh Chon Ly sect has its own taboos; for example, they do not tolerate the Thien cult, the cult of Ong Tao, or beliefs in the ma, qui, and than spirits. Of all the traditional Vietnamese cults, only the cult of the ancestors is permitted. Minh Chon Ly members do not assist at the rituals held at their village dinh (Vietnamese communal temple of the guardian spirit). Unlike the other Cao Dai sects, the Minh Chon Ly are allowed to eat food derived from living creatures.


* Information in this section is derived from Gerald Cannon Hickey, Village in Vietnam (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964), pp. 66-73, 290-94.


The Minh Chon Ly hierarchy comprises two main branches: the Committee of Three Great Heads - the ruling body - headed by the founder in the position of Central Head (Thai Dan Su); and the Committee of Nine, including a secretariat (Tu Buu or Four Treasures) and the Five Elements (Ngu Hanh) in charge of the five administrative regions in Vietnam. A female hierarchy is primarily responsible for proselytizing among women and attending to their religious instruction. Members of the female hierarchy, like the male priests, live at the Holy See, but worship at special altars.

Minh Chon Ly members perform four daily rituals in their homes, at 5:30 and 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m., and midnight. Three daily prayer periods - 9:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. are also required. Adherents do not make daily offerings of food on their altars, in the belief that the Supreme Being does not demand it.

Bach Y Lien Doan and Minh Chon Dao

Two small, little known sects appeared during the early 1930's. The Bach Y Lien Doan established its Holy See in Tay Ninh Province some time in the early 1930's - the exact date is uncertain. In 1931, the Minh Chon Dao was founded, and the Holy See established in Bac Lieu.

Chon Ly Tam Nguyen

Nguyen Van Kien and a group of followers broke away from the Minh Chon Ly in 1933 and organized the Chon Ly Tam Nguyen sect, the smallest of the Cao Dai sects, in Tan An. The members of this sect consider their group to be the most profoundly religious and the purest of the Cao Dai sects. No symbol adorns their temple, since each participant has the Supreme Spirit within himself; in addition, they ignore the traditional Cao Dai food taboos and reject all Vietnamese cults.

Tien Thien

Organized in 1931 by Nguyen Huu Chin and 12 followers, the Tien Thien sect has a doctrine and structure resembling those of the Tam Ky and Ban Chin Dao sects. By 1939, the Tien Thien sect claimed it had 72 temples,* but it still needed a Holy See. In 1940 the French outlawed all splinter sects, reducing them to clandestine activity. In 1954, Nguyen Buu Tai reorganized the sect hierarchy, establishing a Holy See at Soc Sai, 18 kilometers from Ben Tre. The Tien Thien sect is now strongest in Kien Hoa Province.

Each member of the Tien Thien sect must make a retreat of 100 days; messages directing a member to make the retreat at a certain


* One temple is known to exist in Ap Dinh.


time must be obeyed, all other responsibilities being secondary. In small villages, those on retreat go to the temple; the men reside on one side and the women - responsible for preparing the meals - on the other. Four times a day, 4 a.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and midnight, 90-minute periods of meditation take place; meditation is considered most meaningful when the participant manages to achieve a state of complete trance. Yoga exercises are practiced daily, and public confession is held each morning at 7 o'clock. Seances are held intermittently, with only one scheduled on the 15th day of the second lunar month. The members use a stylized version of the beaked basket at this time; the true basket is reserved for the Tam Ky sect.

Ban Chin Dao or Chin Dao Ban

The Ban Chin Dao sect was organized in 1934 by Nguyen Ngoc Tuong, who, after replacing Le Van Trung as Ho Phap of the Cao Dai for a few years, left Tay Ninh to settle in Ben Tre. Based on the same doctrine and organization as that of the Tam Ky sect, the Ban Chin Dao had acquired sufficient following by 1940 to warrant establishing a Holy See.

Ban Chin Dao rituals, in general, resemble the Vietnamese rituals observed in the rural villages.


In general, Cao Daists consider themselves simply as Cao Daists rather than as members of any particular sect. Members may attend at other temples in other villages without conflict, with the exception of the Minh Chon Ly, whose doctrine represents a radical departure from the movement. These splinter sects, in general, maintain close contact with the Tam Ky sect; a member of the Tam Ky sect is, in fact, responsible for disseminating news to the other groups.

The splinter sects, on the whole, maintain cordial relations. The Ban Chin Dao and Tien Thien are on particularly good terms. Since their doctrines are almost identical, the members of each sect are permitted to openly attend rituals at the temple of the other. On the other hand, several incidents have occurred between leaders of the Minh Chon Ly and the Tien Thien, indicating the uneasy relationship between these two sects.

The French authorities favored the Tam Ky sect, but persecuted several of the splinter sects for their association with nationalist movements. Since 1954 the splinter sects, forced to operate clandestinely during the French regime, have begun to reappear and reconstruct their temples, many of which had been demolished by the French. In 1955 after they allied themselves with the Hoa Hao and Binh Xuyen, the influence of the Tam Ky sect began to decline. Information on the current stutus of the splinter sects is unavailable in the open literature at this writing.


[Footnotes have been added to each individual page.]

--24 thru 29--


Alden, Robert. "Sect Head Bars Vietnam Fealty," The New York Times, April 2, 1955, p. 2, col. 5.

Blake, Col. Frank O. Interview, 1965. [former Foreign Broadcast Information Service Chief, Saigon].

Burchett, Wilfred G. The Furtive War: The United States in Vietnam and Laos. New York: International Publishers, 1963.

Buttinger, Joseph. "Are We Saving South Viet-Nam?", The New Leader, XXXVIII, No. 26 (June 27, 1955), Supplement 1-15.

_______________. The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958.

Carver, George A., Jr. "The Real Revolution in South Viet-Nam," Foreign Affairs, XLIII, No. 3 (April 1965), 387-408.

Crozier, Brian. "The Diem Regime in Southern Vietnam," Far Eastern Survey, XXIV, No. 4 (April 1955), 49-56.

"Diem Tackles the Sects," The Economist, CLXXV, 5824 (April 9, 1955), 130-31.

Donnell, John C. "National Renovation Campaigns in Vietnam, "Pacific Affairs, XXXIII, No. 1 (March 1959), 73-88.

Fall, Bernard B. "Indochina Since Geneva," Pacific Affairs, XXVIII, No. 1 (March 1955), 3-25.

_______________. "The Political-Religious Sects of Viet-Nam," Pacific Affairs, XXVIII, No. 3 (September 1955), 235-53.

_______________. The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.

Fishel, Wesley R. "Problems of Democratic Growth in Free Vietnam," in Fishel (ed.), Problems of Freedom: South Vietnam Since Independence. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961, pp. 9-28.

_______________. (ed.). Problems of Freedom: South Vietnam Since Independence. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.

Gobron, Gabriel. Histoire et philosophie du Caodaisme. Paris: Dervy, 1949.


Hammer, Ellen Joy. The Struggle for Indochina. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954.

_______________. The Struggle for Indochina Continues: Geneva to Bandung. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1955.

Harris, George L., et al. U.S. Army Area Handbook for Vietnam. Washington, D.C.: Special Operations Research Office, 1964.

Hickey, Gerald Cannon. Village in Vietnam. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.

Janse, Olov R. T. The Peoples of French Indochina. Smithsonian Institution War Background Study No. 19. Washington, D. C: The Smithsonian Institution, 1944.

Jones, P. H. M. "Khanh in Command," Far Eastern Economic Review, XLIV, No. 5 (April 30, 1964), 239-41.

Jumper, Roy. "Sects and Communism in South Vietnam," Orbis, III, No. 1 (Spring 1959), 88-93.

"Khanh Seeks To Rally Sect," The New York Times, February 26, 1964, p. 3, col. 3.

King, Seth. "Vietcong Blocked by Sect in Delta," The New York Times, April 2, 1965.

Lancaster, Donald. The Emancipation of French Indochina. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Langguth, Jack. "Saigon Breaks Up Meeting on Peace," The New York Times, March 18, 1965, p. 5, col. 3.

_______________. "Saigon Catholics Fearful of Buddhist Army Purge." The New York Times, April 13, 1965.

_______________. "Saigon Installs Cabinet Designed To End Disunity," The New York Times, February 17, 1965, p. 1. col. 8.

Lasker, Bruno. Peoples of Southeast Asia. Prepared under the auspices of the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.

Le Thanh, Khoi. Le Viet-Nam: Histoire et civilisation. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1955.


Levy, Roger. Viet-Nam, Cambodge, Laos: 1954-1957. Mémoire préparé en vue de la Conférence de Lahore, February 1958. Paris: Centre d'Études de Politique Étrangère Comité d'Études des Problèmes du Pacifique, 1957.

Lewis, Norman. A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China. London: Jonathan Cape, 1951.

Mus, Paul. Viet-Nam: Sociologie d'une guerre. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952.

"A New Look at Vietnam," Far Eastern Economic Review, XXXV, No. 2 (January 11, 1962), 47-51.

Reuters Press Release, The New York Times, January 23, 1964, p. 12, col. 5.

Savani, Maj. A. M. Visage et images du sud Viet-Nam. Saigon: Imprimerie Française d'Outre Mer, 1955.

Schmid, Peter. "Free Indo-China Fights Against Time: Vietnam's Winding, Rocky Road," Commentary, XVIV, No. 1 (January 1955), 18-29.

Scigliano, Robert G. "Political Parties in South Vietnam Under the Republic," Pacific Affairs, XXXIII, No. 4 (December 1960), 327-46.

_______________. South Vietnam: Nation Under Stress. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Tas, Sal. "Behind the Fighting in South Vietnam," The New Leader, XXXVIII (May 9, 1955), 11-12.

Thompson, Virginia. French Indo-China. New York: Macmillan, 1937.

Thompson, Virginia, and Adloff, Richard. The Left Wing in Southeast Asia. Published under auspices of the International Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950.

Warner, Denis. The Last Confucian: Vietnam, South East Asia, and the West. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964.

_______________. "Vietnam's Militant Buddhists," The Reporter, XXX, No. 10 (December 3, 1964), 29-31.

Zasloff, Joseph J. "Rural Resettlement in South Viet-Nam: The Agroville Program, "Pacific Affairs, XXV, No. 4 (Winter 1962-1963), 327-40.





Bach Y Lien Doan, 21
Bac Lieu, 22
Ba Cut, 13, 14
Ba Den, 5, 9
Ban Chin Dao, 22, 23
Bao Dai, 2, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Ba Xuyen, 3
Ben Tre, 7, 22, 23
Bernard, St., 6
Bien Hoa, 3
Binh Xuyen, 2, 11, 12, 14, 15, 23
British, 9
Buddha, 1, 4, 5, 19, 21
Cambodia, 3, 4
Can Tho, 21
Caravelle Group, 16
Chieu Minh Danh, 21
Cholon, 7
Chon Ly Tam Nguyen, 22
Christ, 1, 4, 5, 19, 21
Cochin China, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11
Communists, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16. 17; see also Viet Minh
Confucius, 1, 5, 19, 21
Co Quan Phuoc Thien, 7, 8
Cuong De, 1, 7
Cuu Trung Dai, 6
Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do; see Tam Ky
Dai-Viet, 16
Dien Bien Phu, 2, 12
Dinh Tuong, 4
Duclos (Admiral), 6
Duong Van Dang, 19
Duong Van Minh, 17
French, 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 22, 23
Geneva Agreement, 2, 12
Gia Dinh, 7
Gia Long, 1, 7
Giao Tong (Pope), 6
Go Ken, 5
Harkins, Gen. Paul D. , 17
Hau Nghia, 3
Hiep Thien Dai, 6
Hoa Hao, 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 23
Ho Chi Minh, 2, 12
Ho Phap (Pope), 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 23
Hugo, Victor, 6
Indochina, 1, 8, 9, 13
Japanese, 7, 8
Joan of Arc, 6
John the Baptist, St., 6
Kien Hoa, 3, 22


Lao Tze, 1, 4, 5, 19, 21
Le Van Tat, 17
Le Van Trung, 5, 6, 7, 23
Le Van Ty, 15
Le Van Vien, 13, 14
Lodge, Henry Cabot, 17
Long An, 3
Ly Thai Bach, 6, 21
Mahayana Buddhism, 6
Mekong Delta, 3
Minh Chon Dao, 21
Minh Chon Ly, 21, 22, 23
Moses, 4, 6
My Tho, 7, 21
Nam Bo, 1
Ngoc Hoang Thuong De, 21
Ngo Dinh Diem, 2, 3, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17
Ngo Van Chieu, 4, 5, 21
Nguyen Buu Tai, 22
Nguyen Hao Ca, 21
Nguyen Huu Chin, 22
Nguyen Khanh, 17
Nguyen Ngoc Tuong, 23
Nguyen Thanh Phuong, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16
Nguyen Van Hinh, 13
Nguyen Van Kien, 22
Nguyen Van Tam, 11
Nguyen Van Thanh, 9, 11
Nguyen Van Vi, 15
Ong Tao, 21
Pham Cong Tac, 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15
Pham Mon, 6, 7
Phan Huy Quat, 16, 17
Phong Dinh, 3
Quang Am, 6
Quang Cong, 6, 21
Quyen Giao Tong (interim Pope), 6, 7
Saigon, 2, 4, 9, 11, 12, 14, 17
Sun Yat Sen, 6
Taoism, 1, 4
Tam Ky, 1, 4, 6, 7, 10, 21, 22, 23
Tam Tran, 21
Tay Ninh, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23
Thap-Hni Thoi-quan, 6
Theravada Buddhism, 6
Thich Ca, 21
Tien Thien, 21, 22, 23
Tran Quang Vinh, 8, 9, 10
Tran Van Giau, 8, 9
Tran Van Huu, 2
Tran Van Soai, 14
Trinh Minh The, 1, 10, 14, 15
Trotskyites, 9
United Front of National Forces, 2, 14, 15


U.S. Government, 15, 17
Viet Minh, 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14
Vietnam, Republic of, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 17
Vietnamese National Army, 2, 3, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15
Vinh Binh, 3
Vinh Canh, 14
Vo Van Ngan, 21
World War II, 1, 8



Published: Mon Jul 24 15:18:24 EDT 2017