NOTHING dramatizes the changes in the Foreign Service as much as two bronze plaques in the diplomatic entrance of the Department of State commemorating the ``diplomatic and consular officers who while on active duty, lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances.'' In 1951, when my husband, Russ, joined the Foreign Service, there was only one plaque. It dated back to 1780, and 70 names were inscribed on it. The majority died of disease. Thirty-five years later, 86 new names - more than the total deaths in the previous 171 years - have almost filled a second plaque. Most were victims of terrorism. For the Foreign Service family in the '80s, terrorism has become a fact of life.
Americans are now the target of about 35 percent of all international terrorist incidents. The Foreign Service Institute offers seminars in anti-terrorist training, and in posts designated ``high threat,'' ambassadors are provided with bullet-proof cars and families with ``safe haven'' rooms with steel doors and emergency radio communications.
The automation of information handling has significantly transformed Foreign Service operations. Once, when department instructions traveled by sea pouch and took weeks, an officer in a remote post enjoyed a degree of omnipotence. But no longer; messages are now transmitted instantly between posts and Washington.
The Foreign Service has also adapted to the new dual-career diplomatic family. ``Tandem couples,'' now an integral part of the Foreign Service, number 633 - a 75 percent increase over the tandem population in 1980. They now represent 8.8 percent of the total work force. Sixty percent of all tandems are now assigned overseas, more than half to hardship posts.
The tandem couple is only one solution to the problem of Foreign-Service spouses who want to work. Many try to juggle careers of their own with the needs of the service. ``Spouse'' used to mean only ``wife,'' but that assumption has gone the way of white kid gloves. Some 330 women with dependent husbands now work for the State Department. Of these, 231 are currently serving at foreign posts.
In the '50s, McCarthyism cast a miasma over the State Department and reduced morale to its lowest ebb. While morale has never quite reached that particular low point since, it has been severely tested in recent years by reorganizations and draconian budget cuts.
Career officers have always had to compete with political appointees for senior positions, but the room at the top was further narrowed by the Foreign Service Act of 1980. Officers in Class One now have a ``window of opportunity'' in which they are given six years for promotion to the senior service. If they fail to win promotion, they face ``involuntary retirement.'' The alternative is automatic retirement after 20 years.
About 50 percent of those who ``opened their window'' in 1981 made it into the Senior Service in 1986. Approximately 102 officers last year and another 100 this year faced involuntary retirement. It is estimated that only 35 to 40 percent of junior officers entering the service today will reach senior grade.
The Foreign Service, in microcosm, reflects the revolutionary changes affecting American society as a whole over the past 30 years. With some grinding of the gears, but overall surprising flexibility, the Foreign Service has adjusted to the realities of the '80s.
While the Foreign Service can never compete with the corporate world when it comes to tangible rewards, it continues to attract young Americans of the highest caliber. Annually, between 16,000 and 18,000 applicants take the exam, of whom 200 to 250 are accepted into the Foreign Service.
Beatrice Russell, widow of a foreign service officer, is a State Department press officer and author of ``Living in State,'' published by David McKay.