Cao Dai is the popular name for the Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do religious sect, a group of about 1.5 million South Vietnamese. In 1902, a young Vietnamese civil servant, Ngo Van Chieu, became involved in spiritualism and felt the supreme power of the universe, the Cao Dai, had communicated with him. Cao Dai was organized as a formal religion in 1926. An eclectic faith drawing on Christianity, Vietnamese animism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, Cao Dai is centered in the city of Tay Ninh, approximately 60 miles northwest of Saigon. The largest collection of Cao Dai adherents live in the Mekong Delta between the Mekong River and the Song Hau Giang River. Cao Dai believed that Buddha, Jesus, and Lao-tzu were all manifestations of one divine power and religious force in the universe, and they had a great pantheon of diverse saints, ranging from Buddha and Jesus to Charlie Chaplin and Joan of Arc.
The new religion grew swiftly in the Mekong Delta, so much so that the French prohibited its export to Annam, Cambodia, or Tonkin. Although the sect was more interested in religious proselytizing than political activity, it did take on a general anti-French cast and became a home for many Vietnamese nationalists. Because many Cao Dai leaders had work in the French bureaucracy, peasants in Cochin China became loyal to the movement since it made it easier for them to deal with the empire. In 1938, the Cao Dai established its own private army to protect the property of members, and gradually the Cao Dai became a semiautonomous state in the Mekong Delta. Stocked with Japanese, French, and American weapons, they literally controlled a large area northwest of Saigon. By and large free of Communist influence, the Cao Dai were among the most stable elements of the South Vietnamese population. Not until 1955, under military pressure, did the Cao Dai yield their independence to President Ngo Diem of South Vietnam. Pham Cong Tac, leader of the Cao Dai, fled to Cambodia in February 1956 and South Vietnamese forces seized control of Tay Ninh. Most Cao Dai leaders were then incorporated into the South Vietnamese bureaucracy and military.