He was born in Chillán, the son of Spanish immigrant José Tohá Soldavilla and of Brunilda González Monteagudo. After completing his secondary studies in his natal city, he studied law at the Universidad de Chile. While there he was president of the student federation between 1950-51. In 1958 he joined the staff of the Última Hora newspaper, and in 1960 he became its editor and majority owner, a position he held until 1970. He married Raquel Victoria Morales Etchevers (known as Moy de Tohá) in 1963, with whom he had two children: Carolina and José.
In 1942 Tohá joined the Chilean Socialist Party (PS), while still in high school. He rose to member of its central committee. As the first democratically elected socialist president, President Salvador Allende named him his first Minister of the Interior and vice president, a position he held until he was cited by Congress accused of tolerating the creation of left-wing paramilitary organizations. Allende responded by naming him Minister of Defense, a deliberate challenge to his right wing detractors. As such, he had to deal with the Tanquetazo putsch, the first attempt at a military led coup d'état.
During the coup d'état of September 11, 1973, he was seized and arrested at La Moneda, where he had gone to support the defense of the democratic administration. He was held in different concentration camps suffering severe torture: first at the Military Academy; later he was sent for 8 months to a political prison in Dawson Island and from there he was transferred to the basement of the Air Force War Academy.
On February 1, 1974, Tohá was moved to room 303 at the Military Hospital in Santiago in a precarious state of health, suffering from acute attack of gastric ulcers. He recovered slightly and was able to share a few minutes with his wife and children on his 47th birthday on February 6. Despite his poor health, the military officers continued harassing him with endless torture and interrogation sessions. His physical state deteriorated, his weight dropped precipitously and he lost his eyesight. He could no longer walk nor take care of himself. The further interrogations in the Air Force’s War Academy only worsened his condition. On March 15, at 12.55, he was found hanged inside the clothes closet of his hospital room. The official explanation was that he had committed suicide in the grip of a very strong nervous depression, with psycho-somatic effects. The family has never accepted that version and still claims he was murdered. After Chile regained democracy, it was determined that he died as a result of torture.
After his death, his wife and children lived in exile in Mexico City for several years. His family returned to Chile in the early 80's where his wife worked in the resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship.
After Democracy was regained in 1990; his wife, Moy de Tohá, served as Cultural Attaché in Mexico and as an Ambassador to Honduras and El Salvador. His daughter, Carolina, studied law in The University of Chile and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Political Science in Milan, Italy. She is currently serving her second term as a Congresswoman representing Santiago. His son, José Tohá obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture in the United States, where he founded an architecture office.
- Biographical sketch Template:Es
- Memorial to José Tohá with information on his prison time.
- La Nacion newspaper Template:Es Information on the judicial investigation about his death
- Alternative version of his death Template:Es