Foss Shanahan was born at Alexandra on 10 June 1910, the son of Thomas Shanahan, a police constable, and his wife, Ethel Florence Foss. He was educated at the Christian Brothers’ Boys’ School in Dunedin and Waitaki Boys’ High School, where he excelled at public speaking. His Catholic upbringing would be an important influence throughout his life.
Although Shanahan passed the public service entrance examination in late 1926, he remained at school for another year. After the intervention of his father, he was appointed as a cadet in the Dunedin branch of the Customs Department in March 1928. Shanahan served as a non-commissioned officer in the Territorial Force, periodically taking leave from work for refresher courses or annual camps. In March 1932 he transferred to his department’s head office in Wellington, where he prepared trade statistics. He had begun studying part time for a law degree at the University of Otago and eventually graduated from Victoria University College with an LLM in 1936. On 18 April 1938, at Wellington, he married Joan Catherine Mason McCormick, with whom he would have four sons and a daughter.
Shanahan was appointed assistant statistical officer in January 1938, but in September was seconded to the Prime Minister’s Department. He became assistant secretary of the Organisation for National Security (ONS), helping to convene interdepartmental meetings to co-ordinate preparations for war. In March 1939 he was formally transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department, and he became secretary of the ONS in January 1940. Although called up for the Territorial Force in April 1942, he was not required to serve because of his ONS duties.
In a major organisational restructuring in March 1943, Shanahan became assistant secretary to the War Cabinet and secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Effectively Alister McIntosh’s deputy, he was active in the development of civil aviation policy and was a member of New Zealand’s delegation to the International Civil Aviation Conference in Chicago in 1944, which established an international civil aviation organisation. With the demise of the War Cabinet, in October 1945 Shanahan became secretary of cabinet and assistant secretary of external affairs. He became deputy secretary of external affairs in April 1949, and was a member of New Zealand’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly later that year. A forceful personality, he proved an effective foil for the more liberal-minded McIntosh, who admired his skills as a speaker. Shanahan’s staff, however, often found him difficult to understand, as he always spoke with a pipe in his mouth, and few stenographers could cope with his rapid, mumbled dictation.
Shanahan was largely responsible for placing cabinet business on a more orderly basis, especially by the establishment of a cabinet secretariat. So effectively did he control access to Prime Minister Peter Fraser and cabinet that he became known as ‘Foss the Boss’. It appeared for a time that he would become permanent head of the Prime Minister’s Department under Sidney Holland’s new National administration in 1949 – a position he was virtually filling – but Holland refused to accept McIntosh’s resignation from this post. Frustrated by this obstacle, Shanahan hoped that McIntosh might be induced to accept an overseas diplomatic post. In 1957 Shanahan turned down the offer of the permanent headship of the Department of Industries and Commerce.
His role as secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee until 1955 gave him increasing influence over New Zealand’s defence policy, not least because he was soon more experienced in this facet of policy formulation than any of the service chiefs, and because of his access to the prime minister. In 1949 he was instrumental in formalising the machinery for defence co-ordination with the establishment in the Prime Minister’s Department of the small Defence Secretariat – the genesis of the Ministry of Defence – which he oversaw. He also persuaded a reluctant Holland in 1950 to establish a committee along the lines of the defunct Council of Defence, and became its secretary.
Strongly anti-communist (perhaps partly because of his religion), Shanahan welcomed the West’s strong stance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. He played a leading role in the development of New Zealand’s response to the United Nations request for assistance in repelling North Korea’s aggression against its southern neighbour in 1950. He was also to the fore in the diplomatic efforts to secure a formal security guarantee from the United States, which, following talks with American presidential envoy John Foster Dulles in Canberra in February 1951, led to the signing of the ANZUS treaty in September. Shanahan’s report on these crucial meetings was described by Sir Carl Berendsen as ‘a really first-class technical job’.
In September 1954 Shanahan was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the Manila Conference, from which emerged SEATO. His involvement with this region increased in June 1955, when he became commissioner for New Zealand in South East Asia, based in Singapore. He was also, somewhat awkwardly, New Zealand’s representative on the SEATO council in Bangkok, and was a firm supporter of the SEATO arrangement. In 1956 he was cross-accredited as New Zealand’s first ambassador to Thailand, and the following year added the high commissionership in the Federation of Malaya to his duties. In this latter capacity he was heavily involved in negotiations over the stationing of military personnel in Malaya as part of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve from 1955. In 1958 Shanahan was appointed high commissioner in Ottawa, Canada. He also became New Zealand’s permanent representative at the United Nations, which required him to spend up to seven months each year in New York. It was a measure of his personal standing that he was elected president of the UN’s Economic and Social Council in 1961.
Returning to New Zealand later that year, Shanahan resumed his positions as deputy secretary of both the External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s departments, though his responsibilities fell more heavily in the latter. It seemed for a time that Prime Minister Keith Holyoake might meet his wishes by appointing him as head of the Prime Minister’s Department, but no action was taken. As head of the Department of External Affairs’ economic division, Shanahan was much involved in New Zealand’s response to the abortive British bid to join the European Economic Community. He was made a CMG in 1962.
Shanahan was stricken by a brain tumour, which first manifested itself when he became confused during a meeting in Canberra in May 1964. To the surprise of his colleagues, who were conscious only of his ‘boundless energy and tirelessness’, he went into hospital in June. Following neurosurgery in Dunedin, he was discharged in August, and appeared to have made a good recovery, even envisaging a return to work. A fortnight later he collapsed again, and he died in Wellington Hospital on 13 September 1964, aged 54. He was survived by his wife and children.