When Charles Thomas, a respected career diplomat who was abruptly fired by the State Department, died by suicide in 1971, his death left his wife, Cynthia, penniless and with two young children. Cynthia Thomas had a single physical asset of value — a beaten-up 1966 Plymouth sedan worth $500 — and $15,000 in debts, including $744.02 for her husband’s burial.
But she was also left with a mission, she said. Within weeks of her husband’s death, she mounted a one-woman lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill for an explanation of why his career had been derailed — what had put him on the path to ending his life.
Mrs. Thomas went on to have her own diplomatic career. She died March 13 at 82.
A self-made man, Charles was orphaned as a boy in Texas and raised by a sister in Fort Wayne, Ind., before joining the Navy and flying fighter planes in World War II. Despite his more hardscrabble roots, the 6-foot, preppily handsome Charles moved easily among the blue-blooded Ivy Leaguers at the State Department during his postings across Africa and Latin America. For 18 years, he had received glowing evaluations.
“It was nonsensical,” Mrs. Thomas once told this reporter of his dismissal. “Charles was the best sort of American diplomat.” But they discovered they had almost no means of appeal. The department then had a strict up-or-out promotion policy for diplomats — either you were promoted, or you were “selected out,” in the agency’s Orwellian language of the era.
His firing by the State Department — he had been “selected out” — shattered Charles, his widow said.
Charles Thomas found it difficult to launch a new career, his wife said, in part because he insisted on telling potential employers that he had been dismissed by the State Department short of a pension. To pay the bills, Mrs. Thomas occasionally catered neighbors’ parties, and Charles would deliver the food. The day he died, three more job-rejection letters had arrived in the mail.
Mrs. Thomas became determined to figure out what exactly had gone wrong.
With the help of outraged lawmakers, Mrs. Thomas got an answer. A State Department investigation in the mid-1970s showed he was dismissed because of a clerical mistake — the misfiling of his personnel records, including an especially flattering review from his final foreign posting at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. That evaluation described him as “one of the most valuable officers” in the diplomatic corps.
A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the family — and pressure from Congress and Charles Thomas’s former colleagues — forced the department to overhaul its error-plagued promotions system. A grievance board was established that allowed department employees to appeal the rulings of promotions boards. A set of other formal worker protections was put in place.
Mrs. Thomas might have taken comfort from what she accomplished for her late husband and future diplomats. In 1975, she received a formal letter of apology from President Gerald R. Ford:
But the mysteries would never end for Mrs. Thomas.
Declassified government files released in the 1990s suggested to her and her family — and to some historians and researchers who have studied the case — that her husband’s career was ended to stop him from continuing to raise unwelcome questions inside the government about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy: specifically, about whether the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had accomplices in Mexico, where Charles Thomas was posted from 1964 to 1967. The misfiling of his personnel records, his family suspected, may have been intentional.
In recent years, Mrs. Thomas, who retired from the State Department in 1993, readily conceded that the idea of a connection between her husband’s dismissal and unanswered questions about Kennedy’s death might sound “crazy.” She dreaded being branded an assassination conspiracy theorist.
The long-classified State Department and CIA documents show that her husband alarmed his superiors in the late 1960s by pressing for a new investigation that might have pointed to a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death. It was a plot, he suspected, that had been hatched on Mexican soil and somehow involved officials of the communist government of Cuba.
Charles Thomas had identified witnesses in Mexico who said they had seen Oswald there weeks before the assassination in the company of Cuban spies and diplomats and that some of them had spoken openly of their hopes that Kennedy would be killed. Oswald, a self-declared Marxist and champion of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, had been in the Mexican capital apparently to obtain a visa for travel to Cuba.
Their account, if true, suggested to Thomas that Oswald may have had accomplices in Mexico who encouraged him to kill Kennedy, a theory that undermined the 1964 finding of the Warren Commission that there was no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic, in the president’s death.
The declassified documents — including a letter that Thomas wrote to Secretary of State William P. Rogers in 1969, the year that Thomas’s personnel files were misplaced — show that superiors repeatedly rebuffed Thomas in his pleas for a new investigation of what had happened in Mexico.
Over the years, former senior officials of both the CIA and FBI have acknowledged publicly that Oswald’s six-day trip was never adequately investigated.
The CIA’s in-house historian conceded in a 2013 report that the spy agency had engaged in a “benign cover-up” to hide “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission to keep the commission focused on “what the Agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’ — that Lee Harvey Oswald, for as yet undetermined motives, had acted alone in killing John Kennedy.”
“It all seems so bizarre and complicated, like an awful spy novel from the Cold War,” Mrs. Thomas said in 2017 when her family urged President Trump to meet a legal deadline that year for the release of thousands more government files relating to the assassination. “My daughters and grandchildren deserve answers. I hope President Trump will give us that.” Trump disappointed her that year when he extended the deadline to at least 2021.
Cynthia Robinson was born in Providence, R.I., on July 20, 1936, the youngest of four children. Her father was an accountant, and her mother left a career as an opera singer when she married.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1958, Cynthia moved to Manhattan and began working as a researcher at Time magazine while pursuing an acting career. She appeared in two off-Broadway shows staged by the Living Theatre acting company.
In 1964, she was introduced to Charles Thomas, then 41, through a mutual friend. The couple married within weeks and moved to Mexico, where Thomas had just taken up a post as a political officer. A year after their arrival, their daughter Zelda was born.
In 1975, Congress passed a so-called private bill that posthumously restored Charles Thomas to active duty in the Foreign Service, a designation that entitled his family to the salary and benefits he would have earned in the years since his death. They totaled about $51,000. Cynthia was invited to join the State Department, and she went on to serve as a political officer in India and Thailand. She never remarried.
She settled in Washington in retirement. In 2016, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other severe health problems, she moved into her daughter’s home in Minneapolis and died there, said Zelda Thomas-Curti.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include a stepdaughter, Jeanne-Marie Thomas of Rome; and three grandchildren.
In 2013, at a friend’s urging, Mrs. Thomas returned to the Washington bank where she had stored her husband’s old black-leather briefcase in a safe-deposit box. Inside the case was Ford’s signed letter of apology on embossed White House stationery.
Asked to read the letter out loud, she found that the tears overwhelmed her and asked the friend to do it for her.
“The circumstances surrounding your husband’s death are a source of deepest regret to the government he served so loyally and so well,” the president had written. “There are no words that can ease the burden you have carried all these years.”